Day 3: Help! I Can’t Stop Thinking!

Running Time: 3:28

I’m sure by now you’ve had an experience like the following:

You sit down to meditate, close your eyes and try to focus on your meditation object, such as the breath. Very soon, you notice that your attention has wandered away to some thought process, so you bring it back to your object. And then it happens again. And again!

It feels like, no matter what you do, you just can’t stay focused. Instead, your mind is filled with a train wreck of thoughts! Thoughts that just won’t go away. Thoughts that seem to make it impossible to do something as simple as “follow the breath.”

Do you ever think to yourself, at moments like this, “Man, I really suck at this meditation thing! I must be doing something wrong, I just can’t stop thinking. Maybe I’m just not cut out to do this. Maybe I should try something else, like yoga, or tai chi, or running?”

I know I have!

The Big Myth

One of the biggest misconceptions about mindfulness meditation, a misunderstanding that is one of the main reasons why so many people quit and never develop the benefits of their practice, is this idea that you’re doing it wrong if you can’t still your mind.

Well, guess what? We have thoughts and emotions and other mental states Having lots of thoughts and emotions or other mental states constantly in our minds and noticing them during meditation is perfectly normal and expected.

You have eyes, and when something moves in front of you, it’s no surprise that you see it.

You have ears, and when a sound occurs, it’s no surprise that you hear it.

Well, you also have a mind, which is where thoughts live. If you pay attention to your mind, it’s no surprise that you will find thoughts! That’s normal. They’re coming and going all the time, but you may not be aware of it until you sit down, be still and observe what’s going on in there.

There is this very pervasive misconception that mindfulness meditation is all about “clearing the mind” or “stopping thoughts”. That’s like trying to stop hearing, or having your eyes open and trying to stop seeing! Good luck on that one!

Having Thoughts While Meditating is Normal

So, lets put this thing to rest once and for all! If you have thoughts constantly zinging through your mind as you meditate, that’s perfectly normal and expected and not a problem at all. It’s only a problem if you turn it into one.

If you find it difficult to maintain your attention on your chosen meditation object because you keep getting distracted by your thoughts, that only means that you’re still in the early stage of skill development in this practice.

You aren’t doing it wrong!

As you gain more skill, the thoughts will still be present, but you won’t get lost in their content.

How to Work with Thoughts During Meditation

So, what do you do with all these thoughts during your meditation practice?

The question is not “how can I get rid of these thoughts, emotions and other mental states” while meditating.

The question is, what is the quality of attention that I can bring to these thoughts, emotions and other mental states?

Can I be open to whatever is present in the mind?

Can I just observe them as mental objects, without reacting to them or trying to change them in any way?

Try to take the attitude that everything that arises during your meditation is a support for your practice, a chance to see what’s actually happening in the mind at that moment.

Learn More

How to work with thoughts during meditation is a big topic, and I’ve barely scratched the surface here. If you’d like to learn more, I’ve put together a three-part video series that goes into more detail (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

You may also want to check out the following blog post: