“My mind keeps wandering and I have to keep reminding myself to go back. I’m bad at this.”
Harris: So what would you say to this person?
Joseph Goldstein: This is totally normal for everybody who begins a meditation practice, especially in the beginning.
We give the mind some object of attention like the breath or the body, sounds, and within, sometimes seconds, or a minute or two, the mind will wander and get lost in thought. And at a certain point, we become aware of it, and simply begin again. This is the meditation practice.
Harris: But what screams out to me from this person’s question is the final little sentence that says “I’m bad at this.”
You have been my teacher for many years and I would say, probably, 100% of the time we talk about my practice, the underlying message for me is “I’m bad at this.”
Goldstein: The thought may come very often. So the real question is whether as it comes, you either believe it, and then have a whole self-judgment about it, or you see it as simply a thought pattern in the mind, which you could see come and go, and not get involved in it.
Harris: This has massively transformational potential, because if you can start to see that the jerk in your head… that you don’t have to take him or her seriously, you can resist a lot of eating of the eighteenth cookie, or saying the thing that’s going to ruin the next 48 hours of your marriage.
Goldstein: Exactly. You know, there’s one teaching which really sums this up. It says, “Don’t be bothered by your thoughts. Let them come and let them go.”
Harris: Well [it’s difficult] because the voice in our head seems so authoritative. You know it’s the same voice that says “I’m sitting across from Joseph” or “it’s raining out” or whatever, so when it tells you “I’m a bad meditator” it seems like it must be true.
Goldstein: This is one of the great gifts of mindfulness meditation. We begin to develop a bit of discernment with regard to the truth value of our thoughts, and we realize just the fact that we’re thinking something doesn’t make it true, contrary to our usual mode of relating to our thoughts, where we believe everything our thoughts are saying. So mindfulness opens up a tremendous space of discernment, and we see that a good many of our thoughts—particularly those that are self-assessing—most of those thoughts are not true, and we begin to see that. And then we can have them arise, see them for what they are, and let them go, and they don’t influence our mental environment.
Sometimes I play the game of, in meditation, sitting and as I’m seeing different thoughts arise, I pretend that all of the thoughts that are coming through are coming from the person next to me. And just having that frame of reference for the thoughts that are arising… first it injects a little humor, you know into the experience of it… and it does give us a little space to see, “Is this true? Is it not true? Is it helpful? Is it not helpful?
And going back to the original question, this self-judgment about “Oh my mind is wandering, that means I’m a bad meditator or that means I can’t do it… we begin to see that that is not a true thought. That the very practice of meditation involves having the mind wander and simply beginning again. That is our practice.
Harris: I’ve used this technique of viewing the thoughts as coming from the person sitting next to me, and I just keep finding myself thinking me that the person next to me is an asshole, over and over again.
But just to get back to the thing about the wandering mind, it really is the, one of the biggest misapprehensions about meditation. People think they need to stop thinking. And you may, I guess at some point, go for a few beats without having a thought, but you are not failing if you’re having thoughts, and if you’re getting lost.
Goldstein: Exactly, and the aim in the practice is strengthening one’s ability and facility to become aware that we’re thinking quicker [than before we started meditating]. So in the beginning, we get lost in thoughts and carried away, we hop on these trains of association, we don’t know that we’re on the train, we don’t know where the train is going. We’re lost in that little mind drama that’s being created. The development of the practice, the deepening of the practice, is that we begin to become aware that we’ve hopped on the train earlier.
Harris: In terms of the persistence of the wandering mind, it’s like we can’t hear this enough. We cannot have it pointed it out to us enough that it is okay to get lost, the whole deal is to start again.
I mean it must be 90% of your job.
Goldstein: Yes, just begin again.