When I asked Joe if he had ever meditated, he reacted strongly. “I suck at it. I can’t sit still for 30 minutes. I can’t clear my mind for more than a few seconds, without random thoughts creeping in. I don’t have that kind of time every day. Every minute is already allotted.”
Most of my executive development work requires my clients gain sufficient self-knowledge to understand how they may inadvertently and unconsciously sabotage their best efforts with making progress on their development goals. Much of my work with them has to do with unlearning (old habits), not just learning (new skills). I refer to this work as helping them reveal and release their hidden “foot on the brake”.
For this reason, I ask them if they would be willing to incorporate a mindfulness meditation practice into our work together. These clients are mostly driven, ambitious active people. Meditation feels like a boring waste of time to many of them. That is because they misunderstand what meditation practice is and how it relates to a mindful orientation to experiencing what shows up in their lives.
First, mindfulness is the goal of meditation practice. Mindfulness is a particular orientation toward how we live our life. Being mindful is to be present in your body with whatever circumstance you find yourself in. To be mindful is to not think, but to fully sense the experience you are having, in the moment it is happening. To be mindful is to be constantly attentive to each micro-moment.
Like Joe, for many of us we believe being successful at meditating means having a clear mind. Having spent time as both student and teacher of meditation for over forty years, it is impossible to have a clear mind, devoid of random chaotic thoughts arising between our ears, on an ongoing basis. The goal of meditating is not, to never be distracted or disturbed, but rather when you become distracted or disturbed, the goal is to not be distracted and disturbed by those distractions and/or disturbances. They just are, neither good nor bad. Those distractions and disturbances (with practice) become like leaves floating on a slowly moving creek, while you sit on the bank allowing them to pass by without judgement. You learn over time not to invite those thoughts in for tea.
The goal of mindfulness meditation is freedom. The practice helps you develop a muscle that enables you to choose a response to a particular situation you find yourself in, rather than just reacting impulsively in a knee-jerk fashion to the situation. In the old days if my wife, in anger and frustration, called me a lazy or stupid so-and-so, I would have retaliated automatically with an even meaner insult. Today, I am more likely to notice what happens in my body, the tightness, the rising anger, and like leaves in the creek, watch that reaction come and go, and then choose a more useful response, if any, to her lash out at me. In the old days, escalation, with disturbance and distraction for hours or days. Today, a few minutes of yucky emotions and feelings, and then recovery.
My personal developmental goal is return to present. I am acknowledging that my mind will shift into the past or future, where thoughts and story live, and my job is to get it back to the present moment, without story, to allow a wise response to emerge from out of the story-less space.
So, Joe didn’t suck at meditating. He was mistaken about how to measure success. Again, success is not a clear mind, but rather to notice and recover from distractions and disturbances. Not to build those fearful thoughts into a story and react out of that story. Success is to come back to the present moment and patiently wait for your wise response to emerge.