By Rhonda Leifheit
“Meditation is very much like training a puppy. You put the puppy down and say, ‘Stay’. Does the puppy listen? It gets up and it runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. ‘Stay.’ And the puppy runs away over and over again...In training the mind, or the puppy, we have to start over and over again”, notes Jack Kornfield in his book A Path with Heart (59).
If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you have most likely encountered these kinds of challenges: you’re easily distracted, the body gets restless, and soon you’re ready to move on to something else—much like that little puppy!
I discovered this myself, as I was strolling through a nearby park to enjoy nature’s gifts on a cool summer’s morning. Suddenly I realized I wasn’t hearing the serenading birds or seeing surrounding beauty. The chattering of my mind was drowning out all the delights I’d come there to enjoy!
In her book Eat, Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes her own attempts at quieting the mind: “When I ask my mind to rest in stillness, it is astonishing how quickly it will turn (1) bored, (2) angry, (3) depressed, (4) anxious, or (5) all of the above. Like most humanoids, I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’—the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl” (132).
We might find comfort in knowing that the challenges we face in meditation go back to ancient times. Consider the following quote from the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text. Here, Arjuna—who represents the seeker—is speaking to Krishna—who represents the Divine or Higher Self. “I know the mind to be most restless, unsteady, turbulent, strong and stubborn, obstinate, and not yielding readily to the will. As well tell me to control the wind—as to master and control with steady hand this mysterious principle which is called the Mind” (Ramacharaka VI.77).
Being aware that the Gita was written at least 2300 years ago, we can appreciate the greater challenge of controlling our turbulent and restless minds in these fast-moving times! It is for that very reason that meditation is so important in today’s world. If we allow ourselves to be swept up in the anxieties of the world, we are likely to become anxious, fearful, and depressed. While it may take practice to calm our stormy emotions, it is also true that meditation can calm the turbulence surprisingly quickly.
Meditation offers a respite from worldly demands. It gives us the opportunity to come back to ourselves, remember what’s important, and cultivate an inner peace that is unshakable. This is not only a desirable goal—a means of finding sanity in a world that can seem frantic—it is, indeed, our spiritual birthright.
Returning to the Bhagavad Gita, we find Krishna’s reply to Arjuna compassionate yet instructive: “Well sayeth thou, O Prince, that the mind is restless and as difficult to restrain as the winds. Yet by constant practice, discipline and care may it be mastered” (Ramacharaka VI.77). Spiritual teachings and teachers throughout history have sought—and discovered—ways of mastering thoughts and emotions that seem beyond our control. Self-mastery, enlightenment, and unshakeable inner peace begin with the practice of meditation and its greatest challenge: focusing the mind. As a teacher of meditation, I frequently hear students express this frustration. And I remind them: That is the work of meditation—bringing the mind back to your point of focus when it has strayed—again and again and again. Patience and perseverance are called for, and if we don’t have those, meditation will help us develop them!
Here is a simple meditation practice. Because the nature of the mind is to think, it’s helpful to give it a focus. Begin by finding a place where you can be comfortable and sit undisturbed for 5 to 10 minutes. Quietly observe your breath. Don’t try to control it, simply observe. As the breath comes in, think in. As you exhale, think out. You can also experiment with thinking peace as you inhale and calm as you exhale. Be aware of the flow of air through your nostrils and into your lungs, and back out again. If your mind wanders, patiently bring it back to your breath again (and again and again). And patiently smile the way you would to that adorable little puppy.
First Published in Splendid Magazine 2013 Summer issue titled “Taming Our Monkey Minds”.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.
Kornfield, Jack. A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.
Ramacharaka, Yogi, ed. The Bhagavad Gita or The Message of the Master. Chicago:Yogi Publication Society, 1930.
© 2013 Rhonda Leifheit – All Rights Reserved