(a quick guide to treating mindfulness meditation like a game)
My guess is that at the very moment you saw the title to this post the thought of a pink elephant in yellow hot pants and high heels came rushing without invitation into your innocent little brain ……right? Well ok maybe the “yellow hotpants and heels” part is just my own strange imagination at play but you get the point. The thought of a pink elephant was more or less unavoidable.
Apart from giving me a silly title for this post, this little thought exercise also helps to clear up a misconception that many people starting out with mindfulness meditation have – the idea that they’re no good at meditation because they can’t stop the constant stream of thought and totally clear their mind. But guess what:
The point of mindfulness meditation is NOT to block thought.
But hang on a second, what about the stereotypical image of an unreasonably flexible yogi sitting atop a mountain in the lotus position resting in a state of clear concentrated tranquillity, uninterrupted by thought?
Well maybe this is what happens after decades of practice or if you’re a spiritual prodigy but for the rest of us meditation is not like that. And the reason for this, as our pink elephant friend demonstrated, is that we can’t actually stop our thoughts. If we make this the aim of our meditation practice then we’re setting ourselves up to fail before we start.
Anyone who has spent any time practicing meditation will relate to the experience of the flood of random thoughts that can come rushing forward the moment you sit down. “Are we out of milk?”. “Crap I forgot to call Mum back last night”. “I wonder what it feels like to be an octopus and have nine brains?”. “Oh man I’m so bad at meditation”.
So then what is the point of meditation if not to achieve the impossible task of stopping or blocking thoughts? Well the real point is subtlety but importantly different. It’s to simply have a better relationship with our thoughts. It’s to recognise we don’t have to be carried away by every thought or emotion we feel and then use that recognition as a basis to get better at observing our thoughts and feelings without always reacting to them.
To put it more formally:
The point of mindfulness is to pay attention non judgementally in the present moment
Let’s unpack the three underlined parts a bit more:
- Pay attention: in everyday life our attention can be pretty scattered and the constant stream of information coming at us via email, TV and social media doesn’t help (tip: turn off notifications – it’s a game changer). The idea of meditation is to train our attention and awareness to become sharper and more refined – just like training any muscle in the body.
- Non judgementally: We are often caught up in our ideas, opinions and judgements about ourselves and the world around us. Meditation invites us to practice unhooking from all of this stuff and simply “be”. And it turns out it can feel pretty awesome to just “be” once you start to get the hang of it!
- In the present moment: the only thing we really have is the present moment (woah deep!). Anything that you experience happens to you in the present. The idea is that by getting better at focusing on what is happening in the present moment – you can have a richer and more connected experience of life. Another benefit is that you can also get to know yourself better by experiencing more closely what it is actually like to be you from moment to moment without distraction.
That all sounds like good stuff right?
So now we’ve dispelled the misconception about meditation and thought and also looked at why it might be beneficial to start a practice – let me introduce the idea of treating meditation as a game. It’s super simple and I recommend trying 5 minutes a day to start.
- Sit however you feel comfortable (Go on then, light some candles or incense if you like)
- Pick an “object” to focus on. Commonly people choose the breath but you can also pick sounds in your environment or bodily sensations (either your body as a whole or a specific point like the sensations in your face)
- Gently close your eyes and focus your attention on your object of choice in a relaxed way
- Eventually your attention will wander from the object – you’ll start thinking of stuff (possibly of pink elephants in yellow hot pants). The game is that as soon as you catch yourself thinking you need to gently bring your attention back to the object of focus without any judgement. The moment you catch yourself thinking is like the moment you score a point in a game. It’s a moment of celebration. You did it! This is it! This is the practice part in “meditation practice”.
- Your improvement in the game will come over time as you begin to notice you are getting quicker at spotting your mind wandering and returning your attention to your chosen object. You realise that you’re not carried away by thoughts as quickly as you used to be. That’s the muscle of attention getting stronger. #Gains
Note: At this point of progress in their practice some people might begin to feel the urge to make spiritually profound statements to their friends like “I am the ocean not the waves” or “I am the canvas not the paint brush” all whilst keeping a deadly straight and earnest face. Resist that urge strongly. Nobody likes that guy.
- Repeat the game daily until you achieve enlightenment ?
Now being a good pragmatist I’m willing to treat the last step as optional for now. But jokes aside, I have truly gained a lot of benefit from treating my meditation practice as a game in which I try and get better and better at catching my mind wandering. This positive and playful framing of the practice helps me to not take it all too seriously nor get bogged down by self-judgement about not being good at it.
So get the incense burning and give the meditation game a try. And whenever an uninvited thought pops into your head and you manage to catch it, simply celebrate the point you just scored, remember the pink elephant, and then gently bring your attention back to the present.
The Slightly Cynical Seeker