“I can’t meditate; my mind just never stops!” Our minds do what they’re good at: producing an endless stream of thoughts, bouncing from plans to worries to hopes and dreams, to a particular tune playing itself over and over. Often, this leads to frustration for people trying to quiet their minds in meditation.
Even in meditation practice, this feature of our minds doesn’t automatically mute itself. Meditation practices anticipate, acknowledge and address exactly what the mind is doing. Some practices promote concentration – steadying attention to single-pointed focus on a mantra, for example.
In mindfulness meditation, the approach is different: more like a search light than a laser beam. So the thoughts that are bubbling up are noticed and perhaps labeled: “oh, there’s a memory occurring just now.” And our attention is then directed back to the present moment, often by returning to the sensations of breathing.
I don’t know of a single meditator or meditation teacher who doesn’t continue to struggle with “mind wandering” or “monkey mind” on a regular basis. I am delighted to hear of ways people come up with a creative, and effective, way to manage their “monkey mind.”
Recently, a woman who has worked as a professional chef told me she pictures in her mind a kindly maitre’ d, who shows up reliably to direct random thoughts to their “table.” She said this image allows her to drop into her meditation just about anywhere: while traveling, or during a rare quiet moment at her current workplace.
I love the light-heartedness of this image, bringing playfulness to meditation and a stance of compassion for herself. This is not always easy – judging ourselves or feeling we are falling short, even in meditation, is all too common. Author and developer of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Jon Kabat-Zinn has said mindfulness helps put us in touch with an awareness inside us that is wiser than thinking and kinder than thinking.
The imagined maitre’ d seems to be a brilliant representation of this quality of awareness. And now I’m having trouble getting the movie Ratatouille out of my head….