Dissecting a Mindfulness session: inner dialogue, frustrations, and doing it ‘right’!
You’ve set the alarm clock 20 minutes early, and, as soon as it kicks fully into gear, you jump out of bed with a clear intention and laser focus. ‘I’m doing some mindfulness this morning,’ you remind yourself and reaffirm that ‘it’s going to be great!’.
The night before you’ve done the prep work. You’ve identified a nice quiet room, or at least the perfect space in one, already set the heating to come on so it’s not too cold, and you feel like you’re ready for what is to come – nothing less than blissful, in the moment, calm stillness!
You enter the room and ready yourself. You’re sitting up, holding a good posture, or, even, lying down, but focused (you’ve read or heard from a previous meditation guru that both were ‘allowed’). You’re determined. All Set. Ready to do some real good meditation.
You pick out a nice short 10-minute guided meditation that you were recommended. All geared up to really get ‘into the moment’, to ‘concentrate on your breathing’, and just ‘be’! For the next 10 minutes, you’re going to totally let go. No doing. No rushing. Just you and a blankness. Tranquillity. Nothingness. The instructions begin, you close your eyes, take a deep breath in…….and…you’re there!
Cue internal dialogue….
“Breathe in….breathe out…..
breathe in….breathe out…..
breathe in……this is going great…breathe out….oh I forgot to put the wash on….oh…damm…
breathe in….breath out……breathe in…breathe…out….aaaah…my back is sore….I need to move….oh…I’ve lost it….
breathe in….breathe out……..maybe I’ll start counting…..breathe in……1….breathe out….2……breathe in….3…breathe out…..4…..oh can’t believe it’s Sunday morning already……where did the weekend….I must..ahh…
breathe in…4…was it 5?? breathe out….this so hard…why can’t I do this properly…..I’m useless at this……ahhh”
Does this look/sound a little familiar? If so, don’t worry. It’s pretty much what’s going on in my own head, nearly all the time when I meditate. You’re not alone. Self-commentary is normal. Especially so when you start out.
Before writing this piece this morning, I completed a 20-minute meditation session. It’s mid-February 2018 and, for the last 6 weeks or so, I’ve been experimenting with a new technique. New for me, but one that’s very much a mainstay in traditional meditation practices. A chanting based meditation (yes, I’ve gone there!!). I set myself the goal of sticking with it for the full 31 days of January. I know it takes time to get ‘into’ the practice when you change around what your approach is. I’ve decided to continue with it for a while longer just to really give it a good go and see if it’s for me or not. It was difficult, at first, to get into the chanting part, but that self-consciousness and embarrassment fades away quickly…after a few sessions anyway. Ok, maybe 10 sessions.
Prior to starting into this morning’s session, I set the intention to take mental notes during the sitting and log the random stuff that came into my mind during it. While it’s not something I’d advise to do on a regular meditation, for the purposes of this research, it was fine! The thoughts are always going to come in any way, so it was just about looking at them for what they were and take note.
So, while I silently, and at some stages, out loud, chanted the Ohms & Ahms during the 20 minutes, I made an extra effort to be aware of what thoughts, images, and sounds did come to, and pass through, my awareness. Straight after, I tried to recall as many as I could and brain dump these. The results are below, in no particular order. My own internal commentary or dialogue flowed something like this:
“Right, focus on the Ohm…..Ok, I’m in a new sitting position now….
back to the Ohm….I don’t think I like this position…I need to get my back straight against the table…..
back to the Ohm….ok that’s good. I can still feel the pain in my left hip but that’s better…maybe I’ll focus on the pain part as I heard that is a good thing to put your attention on….
back to the Ohm…….this is going to be a busy week…..god my mind is wandering again…..wouldn’t this be a good thing to write a blog piece about….
ok back to the Ohm…….I must get that Q&A email back to Pat…..that event was good yesterday…….Meryl Streep was great in ‘The Post’……god I’m wandering again…..
back to the Ohm…….I can’t believe I’ve been doing this type for the last 4 weeks…..is it having any benefit??…..I think I prefer the silent meditation with just breathing and following your breath….god…lost it again…
back to the Ohm……I wonder how much time is gone….I’m settled in now…my hip isn’t sore…….what time is it?……on I’m going to really concentrate now on the ohm and count to 50 while I do it…..
back to the Ohm……how far did I get??…god…I lost it after two ohms…….Rob..that’s your ego giving you a hard time….relax….I can feel muscles in my face are tense….what about my back?……aaah..
back to the Ohm…….”
See just how busy my mind is too! My monkey mind jumping about from place to place. You get the message!! Writing out the above really shows me (and hopefully you) how much is going on in the mind when you observe it. The ‘back to the Ohm’ piece for me was when I realised I had wandered or strayed from the focus point. Which, as you can see, was happening very regularly and within seconds of each other. Literally.
When I started out a few years ago, the above chatter was definitely there, and frustrating. But in a different way. During most of the 10-minute sittings early on in my practice, I noticed I’d wander away from the breath a few times during it. Yet, as the weeks and months went by, I started to notice more frequent wanderings. This was a source of great frustration for me. It seemed like I was regressing rather than ‘getting better’ at meditation. What was happening? What was I doing wrong? Was I a failure? Was it just not for me?
In actual fact, it was the opposite. In those early sessions, I wasn’t aware I had wandered off that often, mainly because I had predominantly just been thinking about the day ahead, the day just gone by, or in some cases events that happened years ago that I could do nothing about now. It really is funny that stuff that we think of when we start to notice it.
Actually, I was spending very little time just being present and focused on what I was doing right there and then. Instead, I was lost in my thoughts. Not really being mindful at all. The fewer ‘back to the breaths’ essentially meant I was just day-dreaming with my eyes closed.
‘I finally figured out how to do this. It only took me 2000 years!’ Buddha (not actual quote from the Buddha)
The big lightbulb moment for me came when I did some online searching to see if I was unique with this sense of frustration. I found that it’s was actually quite normal. What I’d been experiencing was a common ‘complaint’ for newbie meditators like myself. It makes total sense when you’re made aware of it. As a benefit of the regular practice, I was catching my wandering thoughts quicker than before. Instead of being lost for minutes, it was for just seconds. So, the 50 ‘back to the breath’ connections instead of the 25 was progression! 100% better if you wanted to put a measure on it. It all made sense. Maybe there was something in this after all!
The purpose of this short piece was really to give you just a little window into my own busy mind and to show that these random thoughts are absolutely normal during a meditation session. In fact, if you’re not having these or not aware of them, you might be doing something wrong (or you’re just naturally approaching enlightenment). The key learning here is to know that this is normal. That when you sit and attempt to be for the period of time you’ve given yourself, these thoughts will come and go. Another learning for me, that I didn’t believe at the start, was that you’re not really in control of your own thoughts, despite that fact you think you are! We don’t control our thoughts…..if we did, then why are you thinking of a Pink Elephant right now? Thoughts are easily planted by others or by your own subconscious.
So just let them come and go, detach and be aware. And don’t give yourself a hard time about it. Stick with it, make it a habit, don’t set your expectations too high, and see how things develop over the first few months. Hopefully knowing this, especially in the early days, will give you some relief and silence the negative self-talk a little bit too.
I really enjoy writing these pieces and sharing them in the hope that others read, enjoy and even get some tangible benefit from it. I absolutely encourage feedback, comments, and additional ideas or suggestions to add to what I said. I have developed thick skin so don’t be shy!
Thanks for reading,
Rob is a qualified Executive Coach and has been Mentoring and Coaching over the last decade in various roles held during his career. In 2017, Rob launched the Rob of the Green Platform which hosts the 1% Better Podcast. Rob currently is a director of strategy and business operations with Dell IT in Cork, Ireland. Rob also publishes articles on productivity, goal setting, meditation, and other topics.
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Also published on Medium.