This year’s Rosh Hashana was great- I was with family who I love and miss, caught up with cousins I definitely don’t see enough, and spent as much time as humanly possible with the cutest 16-month old on the planet. I also went to synagogue and took long walks up and down hills. My cousins go to a big, conservative shul, but it felt pretty progressive to me. There were handouts that said “prayer is prayer is prayer” with instructions on how to find meaning during services when the siddur isn’t doing it for you, and on Sunday morning there was a meditation session led by a congregant.
Of course, I went to the meditation class. I thought I would just go alone and catch up to my cousins later at “regular” services, but my Aunt and Uncle told me that they wanted to come, too. So, the three of us went, sat in a circle of about 15 people, and meditated. Afterwards, my Aunt said “Ali, can I ask you something? Is the point to clear your mind? Because if that’s the goal, I definitely can’t do it.”
This question comes up a lot (so much so, that it’s in our FAQs), and it’s a great question. My answer is that unless you’re dead, you’re not going to be able to empty your mind. Sorry, it’s part of being human. We have thoughts. We also have this amazing potential to train our minds and hearts to not get so caught up in the mundane, to not let our anxiety and regret pull us into narratives that are unhelpful and distressing. Meditation is the best way I’ve found to still my mind, to calm down, find peace, and not feel like I’m falling apart.
Not to be a broken record, but here’s how you do it: don’t worry about stopping thinking. It’s impossible. Pick a focus- I like the breath. It’s always there (again, if you’re alive), it’s reliable, consistent, and endlessly interesting (really, it is, just spend some time noticing the moment that your inhale transforms into an exhale- go ahead, try it). If you don’t feel like concentrating on the sensation of breathing, pick anything- listening, smelling, images, prayers, love, a lover, even thinking itself. Just pick something and use that as your homebase. Close your eyes or soften your gaze and start paying attention. When you realize that you’re not concentrating on whatever you’ve chosen and you’re off in a daydream or a memory or worrying about something you said earlier today or what you’re going to wear tomorrow, gently bring yourself back to your point of focus.
That returning, reminding and going back, that’s where your practice starts. Every time you usher your mind back to what you’ve chosen to meditate on, you’re strengthening your mindfulness. The more you practice this, the easier it gets. And, not only does the practice itself get easier, but you’ll probably find that you have a greater awareness of your own thoughts, maybe a softer ease with your self, a gentleness that sometimes even spills over and allows you to be kinder to other people without even trying. At least, this is what I’ve noticed in my own practice and in my own life.
I read somewhere that meditation practice is a lot like training a puppy. The difference I think, is that it’s so easy to love a puppy- cute, innocent, loving- and it seems like it would be difficult to find a person who would describe themselves and their interior monologue this way. So, sure the discipline, the gentle but firm instruction, but maybe we have to take an extra leap and recognize that even in the places that we dislike the most in ourselves, there exists an innocence and a realization that it’s hard to be a person, and we’ve done the best we could do given our individual circumstances, and that the handout at my cousins’ synagogue is true. “Prayer is prayer is prayer,” and we are all trying to figure what makes us feel connected and strong and alleviate our fear and pain. Contemplation, meditation, breathing, being, finding what works for us and sitting with it. It’s also about trying something else if that doesn’t work and shifting our focus to see what makes us feel like we don’t have to empty our minds. And sometimes, nothing works, but if you have a solid practice, you can sit with that, too.