Something many people say when they first try meditation is that they can’t do it because they can’t switch their minds off. And there’s a certain amount of truth to that. You absolutely cannot turn your mind off. But meditation is not really about doing that. You may, as you increase the amount of time you spend meditating, have times when your mind seems utterly still, and it is as if you have found its off switch. But these times are likely to be fleeting, especially early on in your meditation journey, and the fact that you cannot simply reach for the off switch should definitely not be a barrier to meditation.
So, what can you do? How do you meditate when your mind keeps wandering and you’re being distracted by your thoughts?
Firstly, recognize that the objective of meditation is not to switch off the mind. Meditation may well quiet and calm the mind over time, but even that is not really the purpose of meditation. What meditation does is give you the opportunity to better understand the mind, and in doing so, it helps you to build a better relationship with it.
The first, and perhaps simplest approach to meditation is to simply accept that the mind will wander, then gently and repeatedly bring it back to the present when you notice the wandering. In this way, the meanderings of your mind actually benefit you, because you use them to sharpen your awareness. As you notice your thoughts, you use your focus and concentration to repeatedly come back to the present. (Learn techniques to staying present here.) Much like exercising a muscle, over time, the repetition of this effort will strengthen your concentration, helping you to build mental discipline and resilience.
You may well find that the time of day that you meditate has a significant impact on the ease with which you can stay focused and not get tied up in your thoughts. For many people, a good time to meditate is first thing in the morning, when the mind is often most quiet. This is best done before talking to anyone, or checking your emails or phone. If you can make time to connect with yourself before you connect with anyone else, you’ll find that meditation feels very different. (Learn more about a morning routine for meditation and conscious living here.)
It can also be useful to shift the focus of your meditation. Rather than thinking of it as meditating on the wandering mind, consider instead that you are meditating on the freedom of the mind. Tune into noticing how freely, creatively and naturally thoughts come into your head and how equally easily they dissipate. Allow yourself to just notice this freedom, and rather than getting entangled in your thoughts, give them complete freedom to rise up and fall away without any interference from you.
In taking this approach, what you begin to do is to meditate on the self, the witness or the consciousness, who is aware of the freedom of the mind. This self can passively and objectively notice all that happens without judging, criticizing or attempting to control it. (Read more about not judging your meditation practice here.) See whether you can become the observer of the self, taking a step even further back, and really watching the deepest part of you which simply sees all that happens, but feels no need to interfere. Notice the presence and the qualities of the observer. Notice how it makes you feel to meditate on this deeper self. See whether you can tune into that inner calm and stillness.
This is really the key to meditation - it is not about turning the mind off. The mind will keep wandering away, and thoughts will continue to rise and fall. But meditation gives you a tool to connect to a deeper part of yourself that is unaffected by the fluctuations of the mind. And the beautiful thing about cultivating that connection is that when you focus on this part of yourself, you stop feeding and perpetuating the mind’s chatter. Without even trying to quiet it, you find that the mind naturally calms.
This is not to say that meditating is not a challenge - it is. Finding enough focus and concentration to become aware of that self can be difficult. You need to develop the mental discipline to not get caught up in the seductive nature of your thoughts and begin spinning a narrative around them. This takes time and practice, but the more you practice, the easier it gets. And you’ll find that the positive impact it has on your mind and your relationship to your mind spreads far beyond the time you spend on your meditation cushion