A Vipassana retreat is a special experience. How often are we gifted 10 days of silent solitude, away from busyness, obligations and responsibilities? Meals prepared, an hour-by-hour schedule, accommodation sorted?
The environment is primed for laser-like focus on meditation, self-enquiry and insight. Even so, thriving on retreat, and maximising the benefits… that’s down to you.
I attended my first retreat in April. I’d waited six years from when I started meditation. I knew the time would come when it felt right. And I’d known for a few years I wanted to jump in the deep end with a 10-Day silent Vipassana retreat.
I was attracted to the level of self-discipline. It was a challenge I wanted to prove myself capable of overcoming. Even more, it was an act of gratitude and dedication towards a practice that has added so much to my life.
Since attending a Vipassana retreat in April, I sustained the recommended “dose” of two hour-long sittings each day. After a while, I reduced this to two 45-minute sittings, which I managed to maintain for a few months. All was going well.
Then, during a trip to Bristol a few weeks ago, out of the blue, I stopped. Complete standstill. I woke up one morning and didn’t feel any desire to meditate. So I didn’t. In some ways, I was experiencing meditation fatigue, and I put it down to placing too much pressure on myself to sustain the practice. I’ve a tendency to be a bit militant in these situations…
Taking the scientific approach of monitoring results (and remaining as equanimous as possible), I was surprised to notice my general level of mindfulness increased after a few days without meditation. I felt sharper. I felt more in-tune. The unplanned sabbatical led to a useful insight into an error in my mindset.
I’d developed and expectation of the results of meditation.
The Downside Of The Benefits Of Meditation
Each day presents new information about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Increase focus, reduce stress, find inner peace, manage emotions skilfully. Granted, the benefits are significant. This isn’t a passing fad, it’s an age-old technique of mind mastery, arguably inherent in human nature.
But there’s a downside to the flow of positive affirmation. “The benefits of meditation” forms an expectation. It becomes a conceptual belief of what meditation should do to the mind, what it should provide. Yet meditation and mindfulness are experiential, observing what is with acceptance and awareness. As soon as expectations arise, we leave the World of Experience and enter the World of Thought.
“Meditation Doesn’t Work For Me”
Expectations lead to disappointment or a sense that you’re meditating incorrectly. “Meditation doesn’t work for me,” or “I’m no good at meditation,” or “I couldn’t quieten my mind” are comments I’ve heard regularly from beginners and those who have meditated for a while. I understand why; there are a number of common misconceptions about the nature of meditation.
The above perspectives are oxygenised by comparison. In this context, comparing the lived experience of meditation with the expectation of what should happen. The gap — between experience and expectation — leads to disappointment. The greater the gap, the greater the disappointment.
I’ve been there. Many times I’ve felt disappointed with meditation, I’ve judged a sitting to be rubbish. Perhaps my concentration was poor, perhaps I felt excessively tired, agitated, disinterested, caught up in planning. Mindfulness, however, teaches us to always be with what is. To experience, observe, accept. With this mindset, there can never be a “bad” meditation.
The Deeper Impact Of Expectation
My experience in Bristol had more to teach. I realised that when I sat faithfully, I felt a sense of entitlement, as if the trade off of meditation was guaranteed calm. “Well, I’ve meditated for 45 minutes this morning, I must feel great today.” The instant this mindset creeps in, expectations form.
As a result, meditation becomes conditional. It transforms a genuine practice of open curiosity and observation into the desire to change state. Ironically, the more we wish for our state to change, or place expectations on feeling calm or happy or full of energy, the more likely we will experience frustration and disappointment.
Meditation isn’t the game of changing state
Meditation isn’t a game of changing state. We are moving away from the cultural game which pathologically flees unpleasant feelings by chasing comfort and craving pleasant states. We are moving away from an addiction to seeking sensory influence from outside of ourselves, to alter states we find undesirable, while simultaneously indulging in states we find desirable.
This game keeps us stuck. We don’t want to be stuck, we want to grow.
Applying A Balanced Approach
To really benefit, to increase self-awareness, emotional intelligence and to move along the path of spiritual growth, we need to learn and apply the fundamental approach of mindfulness — balance. This isn’t running away or running towards. It’s being comfortable in the presence of all thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations.
By falling into an unconscious trap of believing meditation would make me feel “better,” I’d started to indulge in the concept of better, instead of remaining mindful as I went about my day. I was playing the game of changing state, and regardless of how you feel, this game is lose-lose.
Feelings not matching expectations are resisted. Feelings matching expectations create a feedback loop of future expectations around desired outcomes. Both approaches take us away from the Middle Way, throwing us off balance.
True Meditation Never Stops
Meditation is a time of intense focus to practice mindfulness, in preparation to apply the skill to everyday experience. Unlike exercise, where the job’s done for the day after a gym session, every moment is an opportunity to learn and apply the practice of mindfulness.
So what’s the answer? Isn’t the point of mindfulness and meditation to make us feel better? Isn’t that why we try? Yes, it is. All of the benefits aren’t only possible, they’re probable. The studies don’t lie, I can vouch for that. Meditation has transformed my life for the better.
But — and here’s the key but — the benefits are byproducts of sustained, effective practice. Forget about them. Focus on the technique and let the magic do the rest.
To really see the best results from meditation, forget about results.
I’ve always loved making people laugh. Accompanied by a smile family photos suggest was equally chubby and charming, from a young age I also knew how to milk a joke for all its worth. Over the years my dad, who is equally fond of making people laugh and milking jokes (sorry dad!), has passed on some of his favourite quips. Imagine my delight upon inheriting this gem:
If you notice this notice, you’ll notice this notice isn’t worth noticing.
I’d revel in the joy of sharing this deceptively empty sentence. Like Bristol’s Primary School Pied Piper, instead of using musical notes to catch rats, I’d use written notes to catch laughter. I’d scribble anywhere I’d expect someone to look: notepads, walls, post-its, school desks, chalkboards. I was having a riot, tricking people into noticing the notice while gazing expectantly for their knee-slapping reaction.
See, it’s only when you notice the notice, that you notice… the notice isn’t worth noticing. But how are you to know the notice isn’t worth noticing until you notice it? The answer is, you don’t. You have to notice the notice to make that realisation.
Fear not. The purpose of this article isn’t to dissect a gag I bored of almost two decades ago, or break the world record for the use of the word notice in various forms in one article (86 times). I resuscitate this gag because it’s a fitting analogy for the paradox of mindful thinking.
Avoid attachment. Don’t judge. Accept. Be present. Don’t identify with thought. Don’t react to emotions. Let go. There are numerous ways to explain desirable traits of a skilled mind; many I use in MindThatEgo articles.
To some extent, the rise of meditation and mindfulness in the West has been underpinned by a complexity. We may enquire whether meditation helps reduce anxiety, increases focus, shift depression, increase the quality of our sleep, helps us switch off. Indeed it can help with all of the above. But the more we analyse and intellectually try to understand, the more we can deceive ourselves into believing meditation is complex, when really, it’s simple.
It’s as simple as noticing.
If You Notice This Thought, You’ll Notice…
“Awareness is the greatest alchemy there is. Just go on becoming more and more aware, and you will find your life changing for the better in every possible dimension. It will bring great fulfillment.” — Osho
Awareness is self-healing. This may not be apparent immediately. But if you take responsibility for your inner-world, the moment you become aware of troubling thoughts, emotions or sensations is the moment change begins. Awareness is noticing. That’s it. Notice thoughts as they arise; the voice of the self-critic, visual fantasies or nightmares, repetitive ruminations, flashbacks.
The more you notice thoughts, the more you piece together the bigger picture. If you’re prone to depression, you may notice the critical voice weaving all sorts of sad stories. You’re stupid. You’re unlovable. You’re annoying. You’re too much. You’re not enough. You may notice these cycles of self-talk spark strong emotions, thoughts and feelings feeding off each other as black clouds obscure the blue sky.
Cultivating The Ability To Notice
Noticing simultaneously allows you to witness the chaotic nature of mind while separating you from said chaos. Without noticing, it’s easy to assume there’s no separation between you and your thoughts. Awareness creates space — the essence of mindfulness. For example, let’s say I’m talking to someone I respect. Mid-way through the conversation, I’m struck by an involuntary, paralysing thought from the self-critic:
Jeeez, Ricky. You’re boring them and you sound stupid. Shut up already.
Long before I’d started meditating, I had a strong association with such thoughts. I saw them as truth, with no separation between what I was thinking inside and external events. The result was an immediate, overwhelming emotion — severe anxiety, often panic. I’d believe the thought to be true and find a way to end the conversation to save the poor soul I was talking to.
With mindfulness, we cultivate the ability to notice. That’s it. In noticing I notice the thought isn’t worth noticing. I see it clearly. It loses its power, the emotional reaction is reduced. Consequently, it’s easier for me to return attention to the conversation instead of zoning out and honing in on the unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
A skilled noticer knows how to dismiss cognitive junk, simultaneously developing the ability to know which thoughts are worth noticing.
Noticing Is The First Step
“Surrender comes when you no longer ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?'” — Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks
Closing our eyes and turning attention to the breath leads to the powerful realisation avoiding distraction by thoughts, emotions or sensations is incredibly difficult. Sit for long enough, and I’m sure each of us develops a newfound respect for noticing. We realise our default setting is not noticing the notice. If you’re beginning meditation, noticing is all that’s necessary to kick start your journey — it truly is a galvanising gift.
I’d like to introduce two qualities beneficial to the noticing process: curiosityand playfulness. Curiosity cultivates fascination with the nature of mind. Playfulness nudges you away from judgement and resistance — these thoughts are bad,I don’t want these thoughts — towards accepting the emotional and cognitive landscape as it is, without needing to control it.
Judging What You Notice
Once you find your flow, you’ll notice noticing without additional inner commentary is extremely difficult. Ha! Often the eagerness to calm down, find inner-peace and silence the mind can lead to a new influx of thought when we are distracted; this happens to the most seasoned meditator.
This is the trap door of judgement. Here are some in-the-moment judgements I’ve had during meditation over the years:
“Why am I shit at meditating?”
“Jesus! Where did that thought come from?”
“I’m weird. I’m definitely weird. Meditation has just helped me realise I’m really weird.”
“Why am I thinking about a 30-second social situation from 2003?”
“If I itch my back does that mean I’ve failed at meditation? Monks don’t itch do they?”… itches back… “You’re a failure Ricky.”
“Why am I not relaxed? Why do I sense tension and stress? This isn’t working. I should be calm now.”
There are many, many different shapes, sizes, and textures to thought. It’s important we maintain a curious and playful approach to all thoughts we are able to notice, including the above judgements. This is important because we can never out-think thinking. Try it — it’ll only create layer upon layer of thought, possibly leading to thoughts such as: I’m a bad person for judging my thoughts!
However, simply noticing detaches us from thinking in its entirety.
When The Notice Is Worth Noticing
Just eight weeks of mindful meditation can shrink the amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” centre. In addition to improving wellbeing by reducing anxiety and depression, a skilled noticer lays the foundation for immense personal and spiritual growth. That’s because self-awareness increases as noticing becomes more frequent, even habitual. All of the profound changes I’ve experienced through mindfulness, meditation and self-discovery started with noticing.
Noticing when anger arises. Noticing when I feel threatened. Noticing when I feel vulnerable. Noticing when I’m appropriately vulnerable and trying to hide it. Noticing when I’m seeking approval. Noticing when I’m seeking validation. Noticing when I’m judging others. Noticing when I’m judging others for judging others. Noticing when I’m acting outside of my values to fit in. Noticing when I’m acting outside of my values to stand out.
Noticing Can Break Self-Sabotaging Habits
One of the biggest changes — reducing my need for validation through romantic relationships — was sparked when I noticed this behavioural pattern. I noticed how I’d place my emotional wellbeing in the hands of a lover. I noticed how I was handing responsibility of the ensuing despair, anxiety, stress, fragility, restlessness, value, you-name-it to someone else.
Noticing allowed me to observe this process. This is a notice worth noticing.
Sometimes it can seem we engage in behaviour, even when we notice the behaviour isn’t good for us. But that doesn’t mean this is an example of noticing not working. Generally we’re acknowledging the outcome, not the cause. Noticing occurs in the moment; when we cultivate the skill, we notice the thought patterns and emotions causing self-sabotaging behaviour.
Blazing the shining light of awareness on such inner-dialogue can have a huge impact. Consider the following exercise for the next few days: Try to notice thoughts. Nothing more, nothing less. Celebrate each time you notice a thought, and notice if any judgement or resistance accompanies the thought.
After a few days, consider how noticing without judgement has made a difference. Are you noticing quicker or more frequently? Do you experience more space between you and your thoughts? Let me know your experience in the comments.
Maintain a mindset of curiosity and playfulness, and simply noticing can become your superpower, an unsuspecting gift leading to significant change.
If you notice this notice, you’ll notice this notice is worth noticing.
There are two levels of distraction: external and internal. The outside world is full of sensory stimulation — sights, sounds, smells, tastes. These are the external distractions that constitute the material world. Due to the increasing reliance on technology, the material world contains a secondary level of “unnatural” external distractions that divert attention from our immediate environment. These are technology induced distractions. They include social media notifications, on-demand television, the internet and, sooner rather than later, virtual reality.
It’s no surprise then that for beginners, meditation seems so foreign. Switching off from external distraction and focusing on the breath is so simplistic and devoid of stimulation that it may appear futile. Even pointless. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve detailed in my personal journey with meditation, the impact can be profound.
By sitting down and focusing on the breath, you become increasingly aware of internal distractions. Some internal distractions are physical, such as aches and pains. Others are mental, from emotions to spontaneous thoughts running through the mind. In Buddhism, those spontaneous, impulsive thoughts are referred to as the monkey mind.
Beginner’s Meditation And The Monkey Mind
Becoming aware of the monkey mind (or the spiritual ego) and your inner-world is one of the most powerful and life-affirming things you can do. Why? Because it’s the first step in taking responsibility for your self-fulfilment and happiness. See, the problem with the monkey mind is that it’s nature is hyper-critical and unfulfilled. It seeks fulfilment in the “I’ll be happy whens” of external distraction. It takes hold of your emotions and causes feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, depression, paranoia… the list is endless.
By meditating, and turning awareness inward, the monkey mind is exposed as the neurosis that holds us back, closes our hearts and leads to fear-based decision making.
I’ll be honest — when I initially sat down to write a beginner’s guide to meditation, I wasn’t going to mention the monkey mind/ego at all. I was going to tell you that this practice is an effective way of becoming more relaxed, more insightful, more compassionate. But here’s the thing — in the West, meditation has been rebranded. Many people who become familiar with specific techniques are accessing a distilled version, a “mindfulness 2.0” if you like. I strongly believe that meditation without a spiritual purpose is a commodity. It’s another self-improvement tool adapted by an economical system to increase productivity.
As I’ve highlighted before, Mind That Ego‘s ethos isn’t to increase productivity. It’s to help direct you towards self-fulfilment. Consequently, I will be left personally unfulfilled if I introduce you to this fascinating, fruitful and ultimately life-changing practice without framing it through a spiritual perspective. I’m not saying those who practice mindfulness or meditation without the added spirituality are doing anything wrong — after all, any form of self-improvement or increased self-awareness can only be a good thing — but there’s a rising trend in the West of removing meditation from its source as a spiritual practice, thus reducing its impact.
Right, rant over, back to it. Basically, your monkey mind makes you sad. It prevents you from experiencing life fully by distracting you from the external world and obscuring positive emotions. Fortunately, meditation and spiritual practice helps you realise that you are not what you think. You are not the thoughts, or the emotions — you are the observer behind thoughts and emotions. Considering these thoughts and emotions have a negative impact, this is liberating news!
Within your inner-world, there is a rich and vibrant source of contentment, peace, tranquility and even bliss. These are natural states that we all have inside of us, drowned out by the sound of the monkey mind’s chatter. That’s why, with habitual practice, those who meditate are able to move beyond that blockage of self-criticism and access the inner states mentioned only seconds ago.
Meditation Is Not About Attainment
Now, you’re probably rubbing your hands together at the prospect of accessing these states. Necessary reality check time — meditation is not about attainment. It’s not about goal setting. It’s not about run streaks or meditating longer than others or being zen in any given situation (even the Dalai Lama gets angry at “small things”). It’s about accepting everything the monkey mind throws at you in a relaxed, non-judgemental manner. The paradox is that by not attempting to reach any goal, by not seeking to silence the mind, it tends to happen naturally. But for those just starting out, heed this warning: meditating with the aim to silence the mind will not silence the mind.
I’ve spoken to people who try to meditate with this expectation, which is a common misconception many beginners have. It’s safe to say they don’t stick with the practice for too long. This is for two reasons. The first is that resistance to thought only increases the significance of thought and the likelihood of it returning. In psychology, this is known as the “ironic process theory,”¹ or more commonly, the “don’t think of a pink elephant” phenomenon.
When you sit down thinking: “I am going to silence my mind,” you’ll swat away at thoughts like a mental Whac-A-Mole. That’ll only make you feel more anxious, agitated, and likely to give up. Meditation silences the mind only after you accept and let go of thoughts and emotions, and let them arise without judgement.
The second reason beginners stop meditating is that many of us have lived our entire lives without turning attention inward on the hustle and bustle of thoughts and emotions. When starting with meditation, it can be overwhelming to witness just how frequent and frantic these thoughts and emotions are. It’s also disarming to see how self-critical the inner chatterbox is. This causes the misunderstanding that meditating increases anxiety, or makes you more depressed, or more restless. It doesn’t. It uncovers thoughts and feelings that were there all along, unnoticed due to external distractions from the material world.
I know this because I’m also talking from experience. In my personal journey, I note that I initially tried meditating but gave up because my mind was too frenetic. Closing my eyes opened the floodgates of thoughts, beliefs and emotions that’d be motoring away outside of my control, as if my mind were Times Square on Christmas Eve, and the shoppers neurological impulses. Had I known then that meditation wasn’t about attainment but about acceptance and letting go, I probably would’ve stuck with it longer. I would’ve got a mental coffee and enjoyed people-watching as those impulses went about their journey.
The Different Types Of Meditation
If you’re ready to accept the nature of mind, and the necessity of being a non-attached, relaxed and non-judgemental observer, great! It’s time to pick a technique. There are different “styles” of meditation, the main ones being:
Mindful meditation. This is what I practice, and is most popular in the West. This meditation focuses the attention fully on the present moment, anchoring oneself on the breath.
Mantra-based meditation. The focus here is on the repetition of a mantra. One kind, Transcendental Meditation (TM), gained popularity in the ’60s with high-profile practitioners, including The Beatles.
Loving kindness. A Buddhist practice that cultivates love and compassion towards the self, others, and the entireuniverse. That’s pretty great isn’t it?
Visualisation. Meditation focused on visualising a shape, spiritual guide or many other interesting things.
Beginner’s Guide To Meditation
Sit in a comfortable position, upright and alert. Using a chair is fine, but make sure your back is supported.
Take a few deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
After a few minutes, close your eyes. Focus on the sensations of your body. The feeling of your feet on the floor, your hands in your lap, your legs on the chair beneath you.
Next, pay attention briefly to the sounds surrounding you. Don’t judge them, just observe.
Bring your attention back to your body. Mentally “scan” from head to toe. Notice the sensations and emotions within you.
Turn your attention to your breath. Each in breath. Each out breath.
You’ll begin to notice the inner distractions of the monkey mind. Whenever you become distracted by thoughts or emotions, return to the breath. The odd thought or trail of thought is fine, but when you realise you aren’t focusing on the breath anymore, bring it back. You become “aware” the moment you notice you are distracted.
When you are ready, stop focusing on the breath and give yourself some time to let the mind be completely free. No focus. No attention.
Then return your attention to your body. The feeling of your feet on the floor, hands in your lap. Notice the sounds and smells around you.
Open your eyes.
Some Final Tips
This sounds a little bit serious, Ricky? And that wasn’t a question so why the question mark? It’s important to note meditation isn’t serious. It’s a playful, lighthearted practice. Enjoy it! And this is my blog and I’ll leave question marks if I want to??
How long should I meditate? Like that annoyingly smug secondary school teacher, I’d respond, how long is a piece of string? Anywhere from 5 minutes, to 10 minutes, to 20 minutes or more are common. Start off and see how you get on. The main aim is simply taking the time, any time. Try not to see it as a “set slot” where you “should” meditate. Following “shoulds” sets an attainment-based framework of success and failure. Meditation is not about attainment. You can’t fail.
Do I need to meditate every day? What if I forget? When I first started meditating I became militant about it. I’d force meditation into my day, feel stressed if I didn’t meditate, think about how I should be meditating when not meditating. Life’s busy, some days you’ll forget. Don’t make yourself feel bad for skipping in a practice aimed at your wellbeing. Now I see meditation more as exercise. I try to every day, but if I skip a few sessions, I won’t allow myself to feel bad about it.
Do I join a group or meditate alone? Again, up to you. I’ve used meditation as a personal practice. However, a close friend has benefitted hugely from meditating at the local Buddhist centre. Different strokes, different folks.
Wegner, Daniel M. (1989). White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. Viking Adult. ISBN 978-0670825226