my brain during meditation

I have grown to enjoy meditation. I was going to say “love” but that’s not accurate. “Enjoy” doesn’t really capture it, either. “Appreciate” seems to objectify my practice. The time I spend sitting, placing my attention on my breath as best I can, grows more meaningful to me by the day.

I’ve been practicing for about 21 months now. A year ago, my practice fell off a lot, but it’s been fairly consistent this year. So I’ve been able to go from a few minutes feeling like they’ll never end to a forty-five minute guided practice being something I can stick with throughout. Of course, whether I’m taking a five-minute break to breathe or doing a full body scan meditation, one things is constant:

My thoughts wander. Endlessly, and all over the place. This is normal for most meditators (or so the teachers tell us). Normal brains scurry all over the place; it’s how they were built by evolution back when dangers were all over the place and a brain that settled down in any one place too long became part of something’s afternoon snack. Today, of course, we don’t need to be endlessly aware of danger; that our brains still work like that is a major reason for so much mental unhealthiness involving anxiety and stress.

Mindfulness meditation can help retrain a brain to stop the scurrying around and to settle quietly; there are no saber-toothed tigers or hostile clans waiting to attack, so quietly settling in one place is safe. A mindfulness practice will help, as it were, evolve a brain out of prehistoric times and in to the modern era where quietly settling is more healthy than worrying without end that deadly danger is lurking everywhere.

It is not, however, a quick-fix or a panacea. It’s no different than trying to get any other part of your body into better condition. I have become blobby and my cardio system is poor. For me to be able to run a few miles again – and I used to run half-marathons – is going to take me months of training. Turning the blobbiness into a reasonable level of fitness will probably take longer. So training my brain to settle down and pay attention to one thing, like my breath, is a task likely to last the rest of my life.

What I noticed today, as I sat for a little over ten minutes, is that frequently the thoughts that carry me away from observing my breath are thoughts about things I would like to do but probably will not. I’m trying to focus on my breath for a few minutes, and I get distracted by wishful thinking. This is not surprising – the combination of feeling my life has been a failure and fear that I will never accomplish anything is what my anxiety and depression are all about – but I’m surprised I never realized that this is what most frequently distracts me from my practice.

Fortunately, I’m not one of those meditators who beats themself up for getting distracted. I know it’s normal. I beat myself up for other things. The goal of my mental health care program is to trade thoughts of failure for acts of doing. When I finish writing this, I’m going to set up my podcasting equipment and record episode three of “Shame On Me”, something I’ve put off too long. 

Distractions never end, but failure can. When I lose track of my breath, I am able to recognize that and return without thinking that I’m a bad person, a failure. The next step in becoming healthier is to apply exactly that attitude when I do not do something I intend to do. It’s not failure; it’s some part of my life taking my attention elsewhere. Once I see this has happened, I can return to my intended action without beating myself up.

I’m not a failure. I’m just the descendent of humans who survived by having active brains that not only scurried endlessly, they did so successfully.

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