But be forewarned that there's no pill, no bio-feedback device, no music or guided CD that's going to make restless thoughts go away effortlessly. There's no substitute for your own, finely-attuned, sensitive efforts linking mental focus, clear intention, and refined feeling.
But let's review some steps and basics that can help you. "Mind you," there's no lack of them, either:
Part 1 - The Basics
- Do you meditate consistently, day in and day out? Without consistency of effort there can be no progress.
- Why do you meditate? Remind yourself frequently of "why." This will include a quick review of the benefits and intentions. Without the motivation to meditate we become burdened by ambivalence or mental resistance and it is difficult to go deep. Paramhansa Yogananda put it bluntly when he said "The soul loves to meditate, but the ego hates to meditate." Be clear; be firm; be inspired!
- What is meditation? It is not thinking things over and, ultimately, it's not simply sitting with eyes closed enjoying a steady, random stream of consciousness thoughts, however interesting or pleasurable such an act may be. If you don't know what meditation is, any meditative efforts can be called "good." I am not going to be so presumptuous as to define the undefinable but let us say (as I paraphrase my spiritual preceptor, Paramhansa Yogananda) that real meditation (only) begins when thoughts subside into stillness. Hang onto this concept because it's the baseline measure of meditation. Yes, there are times when in a given sitting we never achieve this, or, only do so for brief fleeting moments, but it is important to know "what meditation IS" and what it is NOT. [Quoting Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "Even a little practice of this (meditation), will free you from dire fears and colossal sufferings."]
- Re-directing points 2 and 3 above, your calm but focused intention with each sitting should be to achieve quietness of mind (when thoughts subside into clear but silent perception) with each sitting. Be clear and firm about this EACH TIME! Don't be tense about it, however: that is counter productive.
- The Secret. The secret is this: you have to want to achieve stillness. Note the word "want." This is similar to "desire." Desire is similar to emotion and emotion, when refined towards true meditation, becomes devotion: intensity of aspiration that is, as yet, calm and non-attached. The secret to a calm mind is calm feeling. "Reason" (or thoughts) follow "feeling," my guru, Yogananda, often said. Jesus said that before going to the temple to pray, reconcile yourself with your brother with whom you've had a disagreement. When our emotions are calm and refined towards devotional aspiration, it's much easier for the mind to let go. Awaken, then, the desire to meditate before beginning to meditate. You will need to figure out how to activate this "desireless desire" to meditate according to your practice and temperament, but it is essential.
- My mind, a kingdom is. According to evolutionary biology, our human body and brain has developed in response to the impulse, among other things, to survive. Our brain, as investigated by science, is incredibly efficient and designed to watch for and respond to both internal and external threats, pleasure and pain, and ego satisfactions. Meditation, by contrast, seeks transcendence of the body-bound, instinct-driven mind. This takes time and re-training. What we have been given is a very good thing but what we seek is not only better, it is our truer essence. The "pearl of great price" cannot be bought with the debased currency of "that was easy!"
- I am of three minds. Our mind has three basic expressions: subconscious, conscious and super-conscious! Restless thoughts originate from the chatter and influence of the subconscious. Being "sub" conscious, this part of the mind is more like a restless child, hence the monkey analogy (and an apt one, pun intended). Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but generally restless and wanting attention and often mischievous. We should no more smack a child when he keeps whining at us for more candy than we should attempt to "sit on" the monkey mind. We have to coax it, train it patiently, and reward it for good behavior. The conscious mind is what "wants" to meditate (being inspired by the silent inspiration from the higher, or superconscious mind). Meditation is quieting the monkey mind, then turning the conscious mind to "look up" and offer itself to receive the inspiration, grace, power, and transforming influence of the superconscious, intuitive mind.
- Take note. In your at-home and private meditation, have a small notebook and pen nearby. Promise your subconscious mind that should an important thought or reminder appear during meditation you will be happy to write it down provided the subconscious then subsides into silence. This is an agreement that each side must honor.
- Counting. I can't know from here what techniques you use, but there are a ba-zillion breath control techniques (pranayams) and mantras. Most meditation routines do something or another with breath or heart rate. So, without wanting you to change the technique as you've been taught, I would propose that you consider this suggestion (i.e., counting) as a warm-up to your technique and not a substitute for it......
- Counting con't. Let's say you are doing simple, diaphragmatic breathing as a warm up. Mentally count your inhalation, retention (if any), exhalation, post-exhalation retention (if any). Counting can help your mind focus. There are variations from the equal count system (equal length of inhalation, hold, and exhalation) so let your counting follow the pattern of your choice or as you've been instructed. Important: your goal is to be counting without intrusion of thought(s). If you discover thoughts taking place, stop, and begin again. Start by setting a goal of between 5 and 10 breaths (counting all the while) without an intruding thought. If at breath number 3, a thought intrudes, stop and begin again. Continue until you achieve your goal. (Set the goal lower if need be to get some momentum and success in this. Set a higher goal if you can.)
- From here....Do not allow yourself to enter into your usual meditation routine until your mind cooperates and settles down according to the goal you've set in your counting.
- Other. Yes, it is true that the general recommendations include doing some yoga or stretches first, a prayer, chanting, and so on. I certainly don't exclude these items but it may be that for you, you do all of these things and still have the monkey on your mind. So, let's not exclude these more standard suggestions. It may be that you are jumping too quickly into meditation without making the requisite transitional steps like stretching, prayer and chanting to relax and energize the body, awaken inspiration and set your intention. (see part 1 above re intention). If you are ill or upset, the most you can accomplish in meditation may be only to chant, do affirmations, or read inspirational thoughts and be quiet but momentarily. (But this is a temporary condition, whereas we are speaking of longer term monkey mind syndrome.)
- Positive focus. I don't want to interfere with your meditation technique but there are two points of internal focus that are most helpful (on several levels). The first is the heart (chakra) and the second is the "third eye" (point between the eyebrows). In my tradition (of raja/kriya yoga), the latter is the most important but one's focus in the prefrontal lobes must be energetically supported by the calm and refined feelings of the heart lifted upward to that point. They must be, in all events, balanced or at least both activated.
- Heart centered meditation. If you tend to be feeling oriented by temperament, rest in the heart center (not the physical heart, but opposite near or above the sternum, in the center of the body) for a good portion of your sitting time, especially in the beginning, and touching in, as it were, throughout your sitting time. As you do so, feel the heart relax and an invisible, inner smile appear, relaxing your face.
- Oneness meditation. Focusing (gazing inwardly) at the point between the eyebrows must be done correctly in order to achieve optimum effect. I can say that to the degree my attention is wholly engaged there, random thoughts evaporate or are, at least, kept at bay. (In the latter situation it's like being in one room and hearing the sounds of voices from another room nearby.) With complete, one-pointed, heart-supported focus, thoughts don't have a chance. This fool proof method, however, is among the most difficult even if ultimately the best. For starters, too much will power tends to "hurt." You can even get a headache or feel sore in the forehead. For another, you have to know exactly where to focus your gaze. This blog is too clumsy to get into this aspect. (You can make a special point of warming up with a few minutes of inner gazing at the spiritual eye, adjusting to the relative darkness behind closed eyes, calming your mind so that you can hold in a steady gaze whatever visual sensations you observe at that point.) Write to me if you want to know where to focus. But gazing through the point between the eyebrows should be the kind of intensive interest that you equate with fascination, aroused curiosity, and positive interest. In short, it should seem natural, interesting and engaging, not forced. Connect it with the heart's energy and power by offering your calm feeling upward into the (as yet unseen) inner light at the point between the eyebrows.
- Two-ness leads to One-ness. Thus it is that the two-ness of the two energy centers (heart and spiritual eye) can gradually lead to complete, steady, absorption in which all subconscious, random thoughts vanish. Another and more complex variation on the technique of gazing through the point between the eyebrows (and another way in which 2 becomes 1) is to use the power of visualization at that point. You might practice a little bit visualizing the eyes of your guru gazing back at you at that point; or your image of God, whether personal or abstract. By abstract I mean you might visualize a golden light bathing your mind with enlightenment. Or, you might visualize a sacred mountain, the ocean, a rainbow or other aspect of nature that suggests to you certain qualities of higher consciousness: such as peace, wisdom, vitality, love, calmness and so on. Practice this technique to steady the mind. Again, use this as a concentration tool separate and apart from any techniques you've been given and are otherwise committed to. This way it is a warm-up for your real practice(s).
- Counting on steroids. To return to counting, a more complex technique, perhaps for more experienced meditators who are familiar with various chakra meditation techniques is to chant syllables or mantric words with the breath. This is complex enough that there's little chance for the subconscious mind to get a word in edgewise! I'll give one example but there are countless ways to apply this. My example is to take the eight words (in Sanskrit) which comprise the stages of Patanjali's famous 8-Fold Path. For my example I'll use the fourth stage which is called "pranayama." Thus each cycle will take eight breaths. As you inhale you mentally and slowly chant the word (in my example, then): "pra--na--yam--a." Pause and hold the breath if you wish, or not, but with the exhalation you slowly and mentally repeat the syllables of that stage. Gradually let the inhalation and exhalations equalize. Continue through the eight stages of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Repeat at least four cycles, perhaps eight, (as you feel) until your mind quiets down. (I use an even more complex version of this not fit for blogs.) Keep in mind that this is not merely mechanical. The Sanskrit words of the 8-Fold Path from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are incredibly ancient and more or less constitute the equivalent of mantras. In any case, there is power and vibration and deep meaning in each one. You draw into your consciousness their vibration if you practice this not just as a mental exercise but as a meditation. You can choose other "lists" such as the Sanskrit names of the chakras, a line of gurus or masters, chakra qualities and on and on. Try to keep it simple enough that you can get it down fairly quickly, though.