On not trying

I always find it hilarious how my brain becomes incredibly still at the end of certain guided meditation sessions.

Throughout the session, the teacher will remind me to pay attention to my breath, or to scan through my body, or to visualize something—whichever technique we happen to use in the session. These reminders can be helpful, because sometimes thoughts race through my brain throughout the session and these thoughts distract me. Sometimes so many thoughts pop up that it can be difficult to focus on any one thing.

At the end of the session, though, the teacher will say: now, let your brain do whatever it likes. So I’m like whooooo now I get to plan my day, or think about that boulder problem I’m going to crush, like I’ve been wanting to all throughout this sitting.

And then… silence. There are no thoughts. My brain doesn’t do anything. WTF brain?!

If you find yourself thinking all the frigging time, if your thoughts seem like unstoppable trains passing through at full steam, if you can just not seem to stop thinking—then stop trying.

Quite frequently, people tell me that they have tried to slow down their thoughts or even that they’ve tried to get rid of their thoughts entirely. And many of these same people tell me that their attempts at slowing down their thoughts have failed. Why is that?

This is one of those paradoxical cases in which trying harder produces worse results. You see, the way to slow down your thoughts is to not try to slow down your thoughts. Slowing down your thoughts is not something to do but rather to not do.

If you’re not used to this method, it can be insanely difficult to wrap your head around.

Trying hard is counterproductive. Especially trying to slow your thoughts is just… no. It won’t work. The only thing you can do, in my experience, is notice and accept. That’s why meditation works. Meditation, at its core, is about noticing and accepting.

If you sit down for long enough, eventually your brain will run out of steam. You can notice this if you meditate, but you can also notice it if you have a 30-minute wait at the doctor’s office and you spend those 30 minutes not looking at your phone. Eventually, your thoughts will slow down. If you sit for long enough, you will eventually notice your breath too, whether you try to or not.

So if you’d like to slow down your thoughts, can you accept that you may only need to stop trying? Not just for a moment, but to let go permanently of your need for your thoughts to slow down?

It is paradoxical, I know. And not trying isn’t easy. But it’s a “skill” worth developing.

Or rather, worth not developing. Think about it. 


— Peter

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