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Sandra Pawula

10 Essential Tips for Taming a Wild Mind

“If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.”Pema Chodron

Does your mind get all unruly when you try to meditate?

Beginning meditators often feel disheartened when they find their mind besieged by more thoughts and emotions than ever.  They might even give up, thinking that meditation will never work because their mind is just too unruly. 

Even those who find meditation easy in the beginning, may soon encounter a time when their mind suddenly feels out of control.  "Advanced" meditators also hit turbulence from time-to-time.

Here's the secret:  If your mind is a bit wild, you are not alone!  Agitation is one of the two main obstacles in meditation; the other is dullness.  The great meditators of the past encountered precisely the same problems when they tried to meditate.  Lucky for us, they found solutions.

Taming the Wild Mind in Meditation

When you begin to meditate, it can help to know a few facts about the intricacies of mind in meditation.  This will provide a useful perspective so that you won't become easily discouraged when you hit a few bumps.  There are also proven practical steps for dispelling agitation.  The following tips will help you to understand the mind in meditation and create an auspicious atmosphere of mind so that agitation will be more easily dispelled.


1.  It Seems Worse Before It Gets Better


In the beginning, when we sit down and say hello to our mind, almost all of us will see a storm of thoughts and emotions.  That's normal.  Your mind will seem busier only because you are stopping, getting quiet, looking and seeing.  This is a good sign, so please don't feel disheartened.  It means you've taken the first step in getting to know your own mind.

"In the ancient meditation instructions, it is said that in the beginning thoughts will arrive one on top of another, uninterrupted, like a steep mountain waterfall.  Gradually, as you perfect meditation, thoughts become like the water in a deep narrow gorge, then a great river slowly winding its way down to the sea; finally the mind becomes like a still and placid ocean, ruffled by on the occasion ripple or wave." ~ The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

 

2.  Making Friends with Your Mind


When your mind doesn't settle down right away, as ordered, there can be a tendency to see mind as the enemy.  Then meditation becomes like the rounds of a never-ending boxing match.  This only makes you more tense and mind more agitated.  The best approach is to simply let your thoughts come and go without being too disturbed by them.  Be gentle and befriend your mind instead of trying to force it to settle.  Be a curious observer of the ebbs and flows of your own mind.  Develop a sense of humor about what arises instead of trying to clobber each thought.

"To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him."  ~ Shunryu Suzuki Roishi

 

3.  Calming the Mind Takes Time


Most of us have a long-held bad habit of thinking too.  That means our brain is hardwired to fire off thoughts and these thoughts give birth to a habitual pattern of well-worn emotional responses.  That's just how it is so, unless you are supremely lucky, it will take time to relax the mind.  Instead of feeling in a rush to achieve inner calm, enjoy the process of coming to know your own mind. 

Be assured that mind will settle on its own accord when you create the auspicious conditions and continue to practice regularly.  As a meditation instructor, I've observed how people almost always struggle with a busy mind the first few weeks in a course.  There's a significant difference that begins to occur about midway [more or less] through a 10-week course.  Trust that - in time - your mind will settle too.

4.  The Goal Is Not An Empty Mind


You might be under the impression that the goal of meditation is a mind utterly without thoughts and emotions.  So you might feel irritated and frustrated in meditation when those pesky thoughts and emotions arise once again. 

The truth is that as long as you have a mind, you will have thoughts and emotions.  They are the natural radiance of the essence of mind.  Although you can achieve greater calm through meditation, the goal isn't to rid your mind of thoughts and emotions entirely.  That would be impossible.   The aim is to simply be aware in the face of whatever arises in the mind.

"It's a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves."  ~ Tibetan saying

 

5.  Vigilance:  the Antidote


The antidote to agitation is vigilance.  Meditation isn't just about relaxing the mind. By maintaining a balance of relaxation and alertness, you are activating your early warning system so you will wake up and catch the excitement obstacle ideally before it has a stranglehold on you.  Then you can apply any of the traditional methods mentioned in steps 6 - 8 to gather you mind.

6. Practical Steps


These are some practical steps you can take to reduce agitation:

  • If you practice with your eyes open, lower your gaze rather than gazing directly into the space in front of you.
  • Practice in a room that is warm and dark.
  • Wear thicker clothing.

 

7. When Agitation Is Mild


Generally, when the agitation in your mind isn't too strong, it's advised to to draw in the scattered attention and place it on the object of your practice - the breath, an image, a mantra, or whatever object you are using.  Whenever you find yourself distracted, simply bring your mind back to the object.  There's no need to chastise yourself or begin thinking about how you got distracted.  Just return your attention to the object.

8.  When Agitation Has a Stronghold on You


Why is our mind so agitated anyway?  Traditionally, it is said that agitation arises from attachment.  In other words, we have a lot on our mind because we have quite a lot of attachment to people, places, possessions, ideas, and outcomes.  

Trying to bring the mind back to the object of our meditation can backfire when the mind is too wild.  So when the agitation is strong, it's advised to reflect on impermanence to counter the attachment at the root of our frenetic mind.   Instead of trying to pull your mind back to the object, simply relax the mind and cultivate a sense of disenchantment. 

Observe how thoughts and emotions are constantly coming and going.  There's nothing permanent or solid about them.  They are just fabrications of our mind.  Are all these thoughts and emotions really so important?  Would they be at the foremost of you mind if you knew you were going to die in a week?  

Then, when your mind has settled, return to the original method and place your attention on the object of your meditation.

9.  Using the Right Method


There are different methods of meditation.  One might be more suitable for you than another.  Or, one might better address a particular mood you find yourself in. 

Sometimes, when our mind is too agitated to focus on the breath immediately, we can skillfully slip into meditation by first meditating on a form like a candle, a flower, or a sacred image.  Other times, listening to and chanting a mantra can transform a mind that is nervous or emotionally fragile.  You can use either one of these methods as your primary form of meditation or as a prelude to watching the breath.  Also, some people find focusing on the breath too claustrophobic. For them, using an image or an mantra may work better.

Although it's best not to skip around constantly from one method to another, it's also skillful to be flexible and to apply the right practice for the moment.  This takes getting to know you own mind and the methods that are most effective for you.

10.  Relax!


When all else fails, sometimes we just need to relax before we can enter into meditation.  Listening to music, taking a warm bath, or stretching might help take off the edge.  A brisk walk might dispel the physical agitation that's accumulated in your body.  Reflecting on an inspiring quotation may inject a dose of inspiration or perspective.  Changing your environment and meditating in nature, for example, may be just what the doctor ordered.

In meditation, you can't force your mind to calm down so there's no point in making mind the enemy.  By understanding your mind and skillfully using these tips, you can create an auspicious atmosphere so that mind will gradually settle on its own accord and agitation will be just a long lost memory.

Here's a wonderful 5-minute video on What Meditation Really Is from Mingyur Rinpoche on this very same topic:  how to befriend and tame your monkey mind.

I would love to hear how you have worked with agitation in meditation.  What approaches have helped you tame a wild mind?

References:


Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment
Shunryu Suzuki Roishi, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Image:  The Thinker, Rodin