What to Think About While Meditating

Sitting down to meditate can be daunting, and Headspace cofounder and former monk Andy Puddicombe knows that there are many misconceptions about the practice. One of which — and the biggest, he said — is that in order to meditate, you have to clear your mind. That, Puddicombe told POPSUGAR, is not the point of meditation. The point is to actually think your thoughts, feel your feelings, and let them pass you by.

It’s similar to what Puddicombe explains in the new Netflix series Headspace Guide to Meditation, of which he was executive producer: during his time as a monk, a teacher described meditation as sitting on the side of the road and watching cars without chasing them. Essentially, you learn how to accept what comes your way while meditating without getting too caught up and going after your thoughts.

Puddicombe further explained during our interview that most people think meditation calls for stopping thoughts, when in reality, there’s no pressure to do so. “It’s more about stepping back and seeing our thoughts more clearly and finding a place of contentment where we can watch thoughts come and go, watch emotions come and go . . . it’s a bit like watching the weather come and go . . . without getting overwhelmed by it, without getting distracted by it.”

Puddicombe continued, “Over time, the more we learn to watch with less judgement and less distraction, the mind naturally slows down, and then we do actually get to experience a quieter mind, but it happens sort of naturally, not through force.” The important part of this practice, especially when first starting out, is not so much the technique but the approach.

While focusing on your breath, if you get angry at yourself every time your thoughts wander, meditating is going to be extremely stressful. Same goes for embracing emotions: if you try to resist the thoughts that come into your mind — or get frustrated that the thoughts are perhaps making you sad — it will be equally as stressful.

It’s completely normal for your mind to wander even for up to five minutes at a time. “It’s like sitting down at the piano and playing a wrong note and saying, ‘Oh, no! I can’t play the piano!’ Well, playing the wrong note is part of learning to play the piano,” Puddicombe stated. With practice, the wandering won’t be as frequent.

Puddicombe pointed out that experiencing feelings as you meditate — even ones you aren’t so thrilled to be experiencing — is also normal. Emotions are part of being human, and if they’re stirred up during meditation, that’s OK. “I can tell you I’ve sat in meditation with a big smile on my face, I’ve sat in meditation and I’ve laughed. I’ve also sat in meditation with tears running down my cheeks,” he said. “And that is really, really common.”

He compared this to bubbles coming to water’s surface. “The more space and time we can give those things to come to the surface and sit with them, actually the easier we’re going to feel in our body and in our mind,” Puddicombe said, adding that we don’t need to do anything to combat them. “Instinctively as humans, for whatever reason, we don’t want to experience that pain or that discomfort. But that’s actually part of the human condition. We have a full range of emotions. We’re going to experience all of them in life. None of them are wrong.”

Feeling those emotions, Puddicombe said, is, in a way, part of letting go of them. It’s part of vulnerability. So the next time you’re worried meditation might not be for you, remember that you don’t have to clear your mind. You just have to embrace it. Moreover, redefining what meditation is before you start is key. Remember that your mind will wander — that there’s no rulebook for what you can and cannot think about — and training yourself to accept that, Puddicombe noted, “is a journey of a lifetime.”

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