If you're anything like how I used to be, you've tried meditation - likely multiple times - and arrived at the frustrating conclusion that meditating simply "doesn't work." No matter how hard you focus, no matter how deeply you breathe, nothing you do is ever able to silence the incessant voice inside your head, nor do you ever feel any calmer or less stressed when you are done.
If that sounds like you - if those words sound eerily similar to what you've told yourself when attempting to meditate - I have some bad news for you:
You have been, as I did for much longer than I care to admit, meditating all wrong.
I know, I know, all the self-serving gurus and social media influencers have been telling you for years that "there's no wrong way to meditate," but ironically enough, they are the ones who are wrong. Tragically so. Because while it is true that there are many ways to meditate, even properly so, there is one key attribute that, if not eradicated from your meditative practice, ultimately and inevitably renders it ineffective. Here it is.
When we go into meditation with the goal of achieving something - clarity, joy, a quiet mind - we are, in that very moment, creating the conditions for disappointment. When we have an end goal in mind, when we are seeking a specific outcome from our meditation, we are inherently setting ourselves up for failure because the simple fact of the matter is this:
The only true goal of meditation is simply to observe our thoughts, as well as the physical and emotional reactions they elicit.
Not to find inner peace, not to rid yourself of anxiety or find more patience around your kids or significant other, and definitely not to silence the mind completely - something that, by the way, is impossible for 99.999999% of people and thus not a worthy goal for us to chase after.
Because while you likely will experience a reduction of stress and anxiety, you likely will find yourself less easily triggered, you likely will attain a separation between yourself and your thoughts, those are all side-effects of meditation, not its goal.
Remember: The only true goal of meditation is simply to observe our thoughts, as well as the physical and emotional reactions they elicit.
So if you find yourself still struggling to meditate "correctly," if you are still beating yourself up for not being able to clear your mind, if you still feel like meditation is something you just can't do, it's time to change your perspective and begin anew.
Stop trying to achieve a goal and simply observe what is happening in the present moment.
Watch your breath. Notice the thoughts that come up. Acknowledge the emotions and physical sensations that the thoughts trigger. And then let them go, like a soap bubbles passing through the air before popping into nothingness.
One highly effective strategy to help yourself transition to this critical meditative shift, especially when you catch your mind wandering away with a thought rather than simply observing it, is to repeatedly ask yourself one simple question:
"What will I think next?"
This seemingly innocuous question accomplishes two highly powerful mental adjustments that will likely end your meditation frustration and transform your practice into something you actually look forward to and enjoy.
First, it forces you to be more present and aware of the thoughts you are having by repeatedly bringing your attention back to the task at hand: observing your thoughts. Essentially, this question takes over the heavy-lifting portion of your meditative practice by keeping you from getting lost in thought.
Second, by asking yourself what you will think next, rather than what you are thinking now, you create a sort of "meditation hack" to put distance between yourself and your thoughts, giving you a first-hand understanding of one of the most ideas of any self-healing practice:
I am not my thoughts, I am the observer of my thoughts.
Or as Eckhart Tolle wrote in his transformative book A New Earth:
What a liberation to realize that the 'voice in my head' is not who I am. 'Who am I, then?' The one who sees that. The awareness that is prior to thought.The space in which the thought - or the emotion or sense perceptions - happens.
So if you, like me, found meditation to be incredibly frustrating and unproductive the first two or three (or twenty!) times you tried, please, give it one more go - but this time not to get anywhere or to achieve anything, just to be present, just to watch.
Three books that will transform your meditative practice, your mindset, and hopefully your life:
The Power Of Now - Eckhart Tolle
Full Catastrophe Living - Jon Kabat Zinn
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius