The complaint is as old as the idea of meditation itself: you want to clear your head, you sit down for some quiet time, but random thoughts keep cropping up.
No matter what you do, you just can’t seem to focus. Here’s how to get over the hump and actually clear your head when you meditate.
How To Stop Thoughts During A Meditation
So what’s the trick?
It’s actually quite simple: don’t try to stop thinking.
I know, I know. That sounds counterintuitive. After all, the whole reason you got into meditation was to try to clear your head, reduce stress, and stop all of those incessant thoughts from driving you mad, right?
The mind wants to think. It has to think. Your entire existence depends on your mind continuing to think something. So, if you try to tell it to stop thinking, it (quite naturally) freaks out. It doesn’t know what to do.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the problem. You can’t tell the mind to stop thinking.
What do I mean?
As a result, it actually ends up thinking more frantically. Every time you tell it to stop, it kicks into overdrive and, if you’re like most people, that probably makes you feel worse, because you criticize yourself for thinking at the time when you’re supposed to be, well…not thinking.
Give The Mind “Just Enough” To Focus On
The way out of this cycle is to give your mind just enough to focus on, so that it shuts up and, ironically, appears to quiet down.
There are a number of different ways you could do this. You could listen to guided meditations, do some specific breathe exercises, or use a mantra or an affirmation.
Whichever path you choose, the point is that like it or not, you’re going to keep thinking. When you supply what the mind focuses on, you can gain control of that thinking process. You’re not “not thinking,” you’re learning to direct your thought in a way you probably haven’t tried before.
Focus is the key.
Here are my two favorite techniques.
Try Uneven Breath Counts
One of the best ways to give the mind something to focus on is to explore the breath. There are a thousand different ways to do this, and I’ll talk about breath exercises in a different post.
It’s important to note that almost any breathing technique could give you this point of focus. One that I particularly enjoy when my mind just won’t shut up is to count out uneven cycles of breath. For example, inhaling for 3 counts and exhaling for 5 counts.
Use any number you’d like, as long as you keep the count separate.
When you breathe unevenly like this, your mind has to think a little bit. Since it’s forced to focus on what number you’re counting to, it doesn’t have time to ramble on about the details of your day, how that project is going, or what you’re going to make for dinner.
Instead, the mind starts thinking about maintaing the count. That counting quiets the other thoughts, and gives you the feeling of more spaciousness and concentration.
Explore Mantras and Affirmations
Another way to focus the mind in your meditation is to use a mantra or an affirmation.
These are statements that you repeat to yourself as you sit to meditation. You can choose a traditional mantra in Sanskrit or pick an affirmation in English. Even a single word, like “peace” or “love” can be a great phrase to repeat.
When you meditate, keep repeating this phrase, every time you breathe. Again, it will give you a little idea to focus on, which keeps your mind engaged enough so it doesn’t wander off.
Accept The Process: Your Mind Will Wander
Lastly, I think it’s important to point out that meditation is a process.
Some days will be better than others. Whether you’ve been practicing for a week or a decade, you’re always going to have times when you just feel like you can’t concentrate or can’t find stillness.
When this happens, relax, and don’t criticize yourself. Use any of the other possible techniques for finding peace within, and give your meditation a break.
Just don’t beat yourself up for it.
If you want to learn more about how to improve your meditation practice, get started with Quiet The Mind, our 30 Day Introduction to Meditation.