Three Teachers Weigh In

Every time I sit down to meditate, all I experience is a busy mind. What am I doing wrong?

By Leslie Booker, Eowyn Ahlstrom and Kate Mitcheom

Leslie Booker: You are not doing anything wrong, you are simply experiencing a perfectly healthy and active mind when it’s been asked to come into stillness. There’s going to be some smoke, some skid marks, and a sense of being out of control for a minute!   

The mental formations that appear to “mess up” or “get in the way” of our practice actually are the practice. In Buddhism, we’re taught to bring our attention to four foundations of mindfulness. In the fourth foundation, we identify how we cling to what is pleasant and push away what is unpleasant — as well as our sleepiness, sloth, torpor, and doubt — as a way to make friends with the natural states of the mind.

It’s fine for the mind to run amuck for a while...but then can we notice our response or attitude to it (third foundation of mindfulness), if it’s something that we want to bring closer or push away (second foundation), and after all of that, can the breath and body find ease (first foundation).

When we are really working with mindfulness as a wisdom practice, we are training the mind to be with the discomfort of life, to build up our resiliency, and to let go of the suffering of delusion.

Mindfulness is not about zoning out, creating a blank slate or even finding bliss or joy. It’s about being engaged in the world; knowing the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows along this spectrum of life, and knowing that life is “like this.”

Eowyn Ahlstrom: The simple answer to this question is that you aren’t doing anything wrong. And, perhaps some further explanation will be helpful here.

While meditation does include times when the mind naturally grows quiet, that’s just one aspect of the practice. Another important aspect is cultivating the willingness to get to know our minds, from the inside out, so to speak. In this process, much learning happens and wisdom deepens.

When we become willing to look at our own minds directly, we see. Mind wanders. Mind thinks. Thinking, wandering, mental busy-ness – it’s all a normal part of mind.

It is by turning toward this busy mind, by holding its changing activities gently in awareness, that the practice begins to unfold. By holding the thinking mind lovingly in awareness, we begin to see that thoughts are just thoughts, and have only the power we give them.

It’s often said that thoughts are like clouds floating through the sky of awareness. Some thoughts are like puffy white clouds, others appear dark and stormy. Either way, they are just passing through. The sky, our awareness, does not need to be bothered by them.

With practice, we can learn to be expert cloud watchers, enjoying the whole variety of weather that the mind offers up, from quiet sunny days to busy stormy ones.

Kate Mitcheom: Thoughts arise, that's all. The only problem is that we think they shouldn’t. 

Eyes see, ears hear, skin feels, noses smell, tongues taste and minds think. To know when eyes are seeing and ears are hearing and the mind is thinking is to be aware. We have much to learn about our own habits and patterns by noticing thoughts without getting hijacked into the content. Make friends with the mind and body, relax and get curious about thoughts


Upcoming Programs with Eowyn Ahlstrom, Leslie Booker and Kate Mitcheom

Awaken Everyday Blog
Writing to inspire mindfulness, contemplation and wholesome living, by Copper Beech master teachers, students and contributors.

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