As a former Buddhist monk with over 10 years of teaching experience, Andy Puddicombe has been acknowledged as the UK's foremost mindfulness meditation expert. Like his readers and students, he began his own meditation practice as a normal, busy person with everyday concerns, and he has since designed a program that fits neatly into a jam-packed daily routine--proving that just 10 minutes a day can make a world of difference. Simple exercises, stories and techniques culled from Andy's years of experience will help anyone calm the chatter in their minds. The result? More headspace, less stress.
Get Some Headspace also brings us the extraordinary science behind this seemingly simple cure-all. This book and practice will help readers positively impact every area of their physical and mental health, from productivity and focus, to stress and anxiety relief, sleep, weight-loss, personal relationships...and the list goes on and on.
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St. Martin's Griffin
June 05, 2012
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Excerpt from Get Some Headspace by Andy Puddicombe
Meditation and thoughts
When I set off for my very first monastery, I was convinced that meditation was all about stopping thoughts. I'd heard about this "quiet empty mind," which could supposedly be achieved through meditation, and I was desperate to taste it. Sure, I'd had a glimpse or two over the years, but I imagined it as something never-ending, a bubble in which there was nothing but space, and through which nothing unpleasant could enter. I imagined it as a place that was free from thoughts and feelings. I'm not sure how I ever imagined it was possible to live without thoughts or feelings, but this is how I approached meditation from the beginning. But trying to create this bubble, to achieve this state of mind which I'd assumed I needed to reach to be meditating "properly," is probably one of the most common misconceptions about meditation.
I received some excellent instruction during this time, but the style in which it was delivered only served to reinforce many of the erroneous ideas I had about it. Each day I'd visit the teacher and explain how my meditation was going, and how there were all these thoughts racing through my mind that I couldn't stop no matter what I tried. And each day he'd tell me to be more vigilant, to try harder to catch the thoughts the moment they arose in the mind. In no time I became a nervous wreck. I'd sit "on guard" hour after hour. It felt like the mental equivalent of the "whack-a-mole" game you find in a fairground, constantly waiting for the next thought to arrive so that I could jump on it and extinguish it.
With eighteen hours of meditation every day and just three hours or so for sleep, it wasn't long before I'd exhausted myself completely. I'd sit there in the temple straining to achieve something. Anything. But with every extra ounce of effort I moved further away from that which I was seeking. The other monks from the local area looked perfectly relaxed. In fact, there were a few who seemed to regularly nod off. Now while that's obviously not the purpose of meditation, when you're forcing it as much as I was, the idea of sleep was positively dreamy.
After a little while my teacher realized that I was putting in too much effort and instructed me to try less. But by this stage I was putting too much effort into everything. Even into trying less. This struggle went on for some time until I was fortunate enough to meet a teacher who seemed to have a natural gift for story-telling, for explaining things in a way I could easily understand. What he said to me came as quite a shock, because his description of meditation was radically different to what I'd imagined.
He began by asking me to imagine I was sitting on the side of a very busy road, with a blindfold around my head. "Now," he said, "maybe you can hear the background noise, the cars whizzing by, but you can't see them because you have your eyes covered, right?" I imagined myself sitting on the grass verge of a motorway (the M4 as it happens) and nodded in agreement. "So," he went on, "before you start to meditate it can feel a bit like this. Because of all the background noise in the mind, all the thoughts, it means that even when you sit down to relax or go to bed at night, it still feels as though this noise continues, yes?" It was hard to argue with this, because it did indeed feel as though there was always a certain amount of background noise or restlessness in my mind, even when I was not consciously aware of the individual thoughts.
"Now, imagine taking the blindfold off," he continued. "For the first time you see the road, your mind, clearly. You see the cars racing by, the different colors, shapes and sizes. Maybe sometimes you are attracted by the sound of the cars, at other times more interested in their appearance. But this is what it's like when you first take off the blindfold." He started laughing to himself. "You know," he said, "sometimes it's at this point that people learning meditation say some very funny things. They start to blame their thoughts and feelings on the meditation. Can you believe it?" he asked mockingly. "They come and see me and say 'I don't know what's happening, where all these thoughts are coming from. I never usually think this much, it must be the meditation making me think all the time,' as if the meditation is somehow making their situation worse." His laughter trailed off as he picked up the thread of his explanation.
"So, the first thing to get straight is that meditation does not make you think! All it does is shine a big bright light on your mind so that you can see it more clearly. This bright light is awareness. You may not like what you see when you switch the light on, but it's a clear and accurate reflection of how your mind behaves on a daily basis." I sat there and considered his words. He was definitely right about one thing--I'd been blaming meditation for the state of my mind ever since I started. I couldn't believe that my mind was really like that all the time. Or at least I didn't want to believe it was. I wondered if perhaps I was beyond help altogether, that no amount of meditation was going to help. It turns out that this is a surprisingly common feeling though, so be reassured if you feel this way too.
My teacher seemed to sense where I was going and interrupted my thoughts. "This is how the mind looks to begin with," he said softly, "not just your mind, but everybody's. That's why training the mind is so important. When you see the mind in this confused state it's very difficult to know what to do about it. For some people it's difficult not to panic. Sometimes people try to stop the thoughts through force. At other times they try and ignore them, to think about something else instead. Or if the thoughts are very interesting, then they might try to encourage them and get involved in them. But all these tactics are just ways of trying to avoid the reality of what is. If you think back to the busy road, it's no different from getting up from the side of the road, running among the cars and trying to control the traffic." He paused for a moment. "This is quite a risky strategy," he said, laughing again.
Sound familiar? Once again, he was right. That's exactly what I'd been doing and not just in my meditation. It summed up my life in general. I'd been trying to control everything. Seeing the chaos of my mind when I sat to meditate had simply triggered the habitual tendency to jump in and take charge, to sort everything out. When that hadn't worked, I'd just ramped up the effort. But then that's what we're taught when we're young, isn't it? "Must try harder." So I'd just kept trying harder. But it turns out no amount of force will result in a feeling of calm.
My teacher continued by making a suggestion. "Here's an idea--rather than running around in the traffic trying to control everything, why not try staying where you are for a moment? What happens then? What happens when you stay on the side of the road and just watch as the traffic goes past? Maybe it's rush hour and the road's full of cars, or maybe it's the middle of the night and there are very few cars at all. It doesn't really matter which it is. The point is to get used to 'holding your seat' on the side of the road and watching the traffic go by." I found the idea of just watching the thoughts go by quite easy to imagine and for once I was actually in a hurry to get back to my meditation cushion.
"When you start to approach your meditation in this way you'll notice that your perspective changes," he said. "In stepping back from the thoughts and feelings, there will be a sense of increased space. It might feel as if you are simply an observer, watching the thoughts, the traffic, go by. Sometimes you might forget," he said, smiling knowingly, "and before you know it you'll find yourself running down the road after a fancy-looking car. This is what happens when you experience a pleasant thought. You see it, get caught up in it, and end up chasing after the thought." He was now laughing loudly as he imagined me chasing the cars. "But then all of a sudden, you'll realize what you're doing and, in that moment, you'll have the opportunity to return to your seat at the side of the road. At other times, you might see some traffic coming that you don't like the look of. Maybe it's an old rusty car, an unpleasant thought, and you'll no doubt rush out into the traffic to try and stop it. You might try to resist this feeling or thought for quite some time before you realize that you're back in the road again. But the moment you do, in that moment, you have the opportunity to take up your position on the side of the road again." He continued, now speaking more deliberately. "Over time, this will get easier. You won't want to run out into the road quite so often and you'll find it easier and easier to just sit and watch the thoughts go by. This is the process of meditation."
It's worth taking some time to reflect on this analogy and as I sat there I considered what he'd said. It all made so much sense, at least theoretically. But there were a couple of points that didn't feel right. If I was just sitting there as an observer to the thoughts, then who was doing the thinking? Surely I can't be doing both at the same time? "Your thoughts are autonomous," he explained. "Of course, if you want to think about something you can, you have that ability to reflect, to remember, or to project into the future and imagine how things might be. But what about the thoughts that just 'pop' into your mind when you sit to meditate, or when you're walking down the street, or sitting at your desk trying to read a book? What about those thoughts? You didn't bring those thoughts to mind, did you? They came to mind. One minute you're reading a book and the next the thought of an old friend 'pops' into your mind. You haven't thought of this friend for a long time and you made no conscious effort to bring him to mind and yet, all of a sudden, there he is!" This was definitely something I'd experienced a lot. I don't know if it's something that ever happens to you, but I'd often start reading a page of a book, only to reach the end and realize that not a word had gone in. Inevitably, somewhere along the way a thought had popped up and I'd become distracted, often without even being aware of it.
"So," he continued, "these thoughts that we try so hard to suppress, to get away from or to stop altogether, are pretty much just popping up whenever they feel like it, right? We like to think we control our minds, control the flow of thought, but if it was possible to do that then you wouldn't have traveled halfway around the world for my advice." He pointed at me, playfully, laughing. "In fact, if it were possible to control your thoughts then you'd never have any reason to get stressed at all. You'd simply block out all the unpleasant thoughts and live peacefully with all your happy thoughts." I couldn't believe how obvious it sounded when he explained it like that. It was almost as if I already knew it at some level, but had somehow forgotten to apply the idea to my life. "But what about productive thoughts?" I asked. "What about creative thoughts, ones that are necessary to solve problems?"
"I'm not saying that all thinking is bad," he said. "We need the ability to think in order to live. It's the nature of mind to think. In the same way that the road was built for cars to journey on, so the mind exists to experience thoughts and feelings. So don't make the mistake of thinking that all thoughts are bad. They're not--we just need to know how to relate to them. What you need to ask yourself," he continued, "is how much of your thinking is helpful, productive, and how much is unhelpful or unproductive. Only you know the answer to that. I'm assuming that because you've come all this way to see me, your thinking causes you problems at times, that maybe some of it is not so helpful?" There was no arguing with that. A great many of my thoughts fell into the "unhelpful and unproductive" category. "If you're worried about losing these creative thoughts," he gestured somewhat dismissively, "then where do you think they come from in the first place? Do those moments of inspiration come from cold, rational thinking, or do they arise from the stillness and the spaciousness of the mind? When the mind is always busy there's no room for these thoughts to arise, so by training your mind you'll actually make more space for these creative thoughts to arise. The point is, don't be a slave to your mind. If you want to direct your mind and use it well, then good. But what use is the mind if it's all over the place, with no sense of direction or stability?"
Having thanked my teacher for his time I returned to my room to mull over all we'd discussed. Every point seemed to be as important as the next. For me it was a radically different way of approaching meditation, and I suspect it may well be for you too. But in that one short meeting I'd learned that meditation, within a mindful context, was not about stopping thoughts and controlling the mind. It was a process of giving up control, of stepping back, learning how to focus the attention in a passive way, while simply resting the mind in its own natural awareness. My teacher had explained how it was a skill, an art, knowing how to step back and how not to get continually sucked into the realm of endless, unproductive and often stressful thinking. I'd learned how the thoughts were autonomous and how no amount of force could prevent them from arising.