Wednesday, May 6, 2020

When Disruptive Thoughts Hijack Your Practice: What's So Good About Meditating, Part 3

by Patrice Priya Wagner

In my last post on meditation, which was published before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I promised to give you some tricks in the next post on how to keep disruptive thoughts away during meditation. It seems very timely now to share that information since we're experiencing one of the most unsettling times many of us have ever lived through and we're trying to stay grounded, centered, and calm despite it all.

As strong a practice as I had pre-COVID, these days I find it extremely difficult to quiet my mind for meditation and some days it's just plain impossible. So, before I begin my meditation session involving concentrating on my breath, I do a conscious relaxation session that consists of releasing body tension through visualization meanwhile allowing my exhalations to last longer than inhalations. The breath work involving longer exhalations is a pranayama practice; yogis are known to do pranayama in preparation for meditation. If I maintain this for at least several minutes when I can't calm my mind down, these relaxation practices induce my nervous system to go into the rest and digest state.

Some days, I use an online guided relaxation to help me relax; it works simply due to the comfort that I find in the vibrational tone of the speaker's voice. Mindfulness 3-Min Breathing Space Guided Meditation is what works for me right now; it is at heart a form of Buddhist meditation that helps me to relax before starting a yogic (concentration) meditation. Each of us finds comfort in different voices so you may want to do a brief internet search to listen to different examples to find what suits you best.

Other days I let a guided relaxation session transition directly into silent meditation. Once my body was relaxed and my mind had slowed down—but not to point of being asleep—I found it easier to attempt yogic meditation using a focus that I continually returned to.

As homo sapiens we have the ability to recognize we are thinking and to act on that knowledge. Before COVID-19, it had taken me a while to become aware when an intrusive thought flew through my mind while I was meditating but, after putting in some effort, I had succeeded. I don't intend to say goodbye to that hard-won ability because my meditation practice is a crucial source of serenity for me. So, I'm revisiting the steps I originally took that got me to the point of catching an intrusive thought right in the act of interrupting.

As I explained in in Part 1 and Part 2, at first I was just dimly aware of the intruder as I put effort into concentrating on my breath, image, or mantra as I explained. While working to focus on my breath, I wondered how was I supposed to also become aware of pesky thoughts floating around the edges of my consciousness? Of all the challenges of the practice, this was one of steepest uphill journeys for me. It wasn't really until a disruptive thought had the audacity to completely take control of my thinking and create a story in my mind of some future narrative that would never take place, that I started to wake up to what was happening.

Nowadays, I find the same thing occurring. My mind will wander into the strangest places and if I was a fiction writer I could use the stories to write a novel. But my purpose is to gain control over my thoughts for meditation, not allow them to go free range. So, if you're experiencing this too, we have to take action now.

Remember it's important that you learn to negotiate with your mind. If you have a "sticky" thought that keeps coming back or wants to "glue" itself in your mind, do not be harsh with it or it may come back with a vengeance. Instead, talk to it like an ill-mannered next-door neighbor who you can't ignore because, well, they live next door. Act politely, inquire how they're doing, and wait for a reply.

The answer will determine what to do next. If the intrusive thought is about something you meant to take care of earlier, tell it that you will deal with it after the meditation session. Act nicely and it will respond more gently. But, if it still returns, come out of your session and spend a bit of time analyzing why it is troubling you. Once you've fully acknowledged the thought, and considered why it needs to be heard, you'll likely be able to restart your session.

Here's a trick that might seem counter-intuitive but that has helped me along my meditative path. I often keep a piece of paper and pencil nearby when I meditate so, at moments of disruption, I can write down the intrusive thought. There have been a few useful ones that I've written down, but, regardless, once I've put a thought to paper my mind is no longer bothered by it and my meditation is no longer derailed by it.

Truth be told, the mind has its own logic, like the heart, and I've come to accept that my task is to slow down a force that won't listen to ordinary reason. Each meditation session, I start from where my mind tells me we are at that moment, remembering that I'm trying to control a slippery, fidgety thing that needs to be treated gently and never coerced. It takes time to recognize a thought as it intrudes on our meditation practice, and to gain the ability to release it from our mind. But with some work we can succeed. And, from experience, I know it is worth the effort.

Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities and offers meditation workshops in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Kitchen Sink. She is Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a founding member of the Accessible Yoga Board of Directors.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

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