We took some time earlier this week to talk about those tough moments in life when things don’t work out as you wanted them to. Bad news is hard to take in, and even harder to let go of. It generates a whole avalanche of related thoughts about our self-worth, and why (we think) things didn’t go as intended. It’s dominoes in the brain, so to speak.
It feels like the perfect moment to take on debunking one of the greatest myths about meditation: that you need an empty head to walk away with a peaceful heart. I mean, my head’s not empty – is yours? Heads are never empty. In fact, it’s their job to constantly be searching for new ways to fill up. Mindfulness, including meditation, isn’t about asking your brain to stop thinking, it’s about taking a step back, seeing those thoughts for what they are, and calling them out on it. And just like that, we have our “no-fail” mindfulness challenge for the weekend floating in for a landing. Head’s up…
So how to get ourselves into the space where we can actually step back from our thoughts? Isn’t that kind of impossible? It’s not, actually, but you do need a strategy. Enter: the labeling thoughts meditation.
Those among you who love a good organizing project should be squealing with delight right now. If that’s not so much your thing, have no fear. This one’s pretty simple, and I promise it won’t hurt. You can do it! So, let’s get started…
- Find a comfortable seat. Close your eyes (or don’t, if that weirds you out at this moment), and check in with your breath. It’s been happening all this time you’ve been reading, but take a moment to actually notice what it feels like running through your body. Cool? Warm? Do you feel it in your chest? Throat? Nose? Just observe, and keep breathing…
- Make your breath your point of focus. Give the sensations you’re observing your full attention. Allow your chest, lungs and belly to expand with your inhales, and really make space for your breath to help you settle in to where you are right now, not where your thoughts want you to think you are.
- Accept that you will be interrupted. Not so much by your roommate wondering if you stole their phone charger, or your 5-minute reminder that those concert tix are about to go on pre-sale (although I’m not ruling either out…), but by your very own self. Your brain is going to try to steal some spotlight away from that breath, and that’s ok. It’s just being a brain, and a good one at that.
- Label that thought. When you notice that your attention has shifted from your breath to, say, your lunch, a headline you saw earlier, that sweater you should have bought on sale last weekend, or – who knows – maybe how hard it is to just focus on your breath for a few minutes, get out your mental label printer and simply say to yourself, “That’s a thought.” Slap that imaginary sticker right on it, and bring your attention back to your breath.
- Rinse and repeat, as often as needed. Just because you made a nice mental label doesn’t mean your brain is going to go sit quietly in the corner after one interruption. Oh no, it has plans for you. It has a million and one ways to distract you up its sleeve, and you’re gonna see a lot of them. But here’s your secret weapon when you do…
- Don’t get mad. Getting mad is a trap. It’s an easy way for your mind to suck you in to a fabricated story about how 1) you’re not “good” at meditation, 2) you’ll never be “good” at meditation, and 3) you should really just order those concert tix right now. Your special magic here is that you’re going to see that thought, tell it you’ve been expecting it, label it for what it is, and come back to your breath. No seething anger, no harsh self-judgment, no drama train to catch a ride on. No big deal. Just breathe.
It may feel like you’re slipping and sliding along for a good long while as you do this, but keep at it. As I said on Wednesday, the moment you realize your attention has shifted and you made the choice to come back is exactly when the meditation started working.
Attention, intention, breath. It’s a short recipe for a challenge that may be “no-fail,” but is also not easy. No matter what, as long as these three things come together, however, it is always done exactly right. No need to think it over…just give it a try. ;)
Looking for a guided labeling thoughts meditation? Try the one near the bottom of this page.
Photo credit: Cerys Lowe