Undomesticate Your Mind
Let’s be honest: our minds are wild animals that, if left to their own devices, would run amok like excessively caffeinated squirrels.
This is actually an important aspect of how our brains work. It’s helped us survive as a species.
But when we learn to meditate, we often get the message that we need to force that wild animal into a box and somehow get it to stay there without tearing its way out. So we sit down and try to white-knuckle our attention onto the breath, or some other focal point.
Sometimes this works and is even helpful. We can build concentration, calm, and focus. But other times, it’s the opposite of helpful. Sometimes the squirrel just won’t stay in the box, and trying to force it leads to frustration, suppression, and self-judgment. We feel like whenever we're not paying attention to the breath, we’re doing something wrong. Or we might get the message that whatever else may be happening in our bodies or minds doesn’t matter, or isn’t worthy of our attention. This can be not just counterproductive, but actually damaging.
It turns out that mindfulness is not about pretending to be calm until you are, or about faking it until you make it. It’s about showing up authentically and not having to feel anything other than how you’re actually feeling. And there are different ways to meditate that can help us do that.
For example, we can allow our attention to be drawn to what’s actually interesting to us, rather than force it to remain on a single anchor.
How does this work in practice? In your meditation, when you notice that something else has come into your view, rather than just note it and go back to the breath, it’s actually okay to turn toward it. Examples might be sensations in your body, or thoughts that flash through the mind, or emotions that pass through. Whatever you notice, see if you can give it permission to be here by giving it your full attention. Let your thoughts and feelings show up in your body, moving in whatever way they need to – to be tight, or expansive, or even numb.
If it feels interesting (and safe), you could even see what happens if you let emotions move fully through your body and mind. What emotion is it? What kinds of thoughts come with it? How does it want to play itself out in your imagination? Maybe you imagine yourself curling up into a ball, or sinking down, or exploding. Or maybe you’re running free somewhere. Let it be creative, trusting that it’s okay to let your emotions fully express themselves in the safety of your imagination. And if it feels like you're getting lost in it or overwhelmed, you can always come back to your anchor.
Of course, you may or may not like what you see, and that’s okay. Make space for all of it: the emotions and thoughts, and however you may feel about them. Meditation isn’t about ignoring the bad feelings and focusing on the good ones. That’s more of a recipe for invalidating ourselves than for actual, authentic freedom. Rather, mindfulness is about opening to whatever we're feeling, not trying to change it, fix it, or make it go away. Even if it feels hard or out of character for us.
There are several benefits to this way of meditating.
First, feelings contain important messages about our welfare. They have things to say about what we deeply want and need. When we turn towards them with a sense of respect, we’re learning how to care for and honor ourselves in a deep way. This kind of compassion makes it easier to connect with everyone else we share this planet with.
Second, we get to observe and learn from the ways that our thoughts and feelings impact us. Do they bring openness and clarity? Or do you notice contraction and tension? Are they pleasant or alluring, or do they make you clamp down in some way? The more attention we bring to difficult moments, the more our brains recognize the pain and discomfort they create, and thus the less likely they are to repeat themselves and continue to run our lives.
Third, making space to let feelings flow in meditation can help us find clarity and agency when emotions are super strong in the rest of life. Instead of being controlled by our emotions, we can use them to inform our decisions, letting them move through us and with us without hurting those around us. And life gets a lot easier when we’re free to be ourselves.
Finally, allowing all these experiences to arise in meditation isn’t just about the bad or difficult parts. When something feels good, we often feel relaxed, open, and connected to ourselves and others. The more we notice those moments,the more likely they are to occur, and the more impact they can have on us in the world. We take less for granted, and start appreciating our lives more and more..
Whatever it is that you're feeling, know that it's totally natural. This isn’t something that only happens to you, or something that you need to fix or get rid of. Anger, shame, fear, joy, wonder, sadness – all are parts of being a human. They are worthy of being experienced. So go ahead, let that wildness out of the box, and set your heart free.
Cara Lai spent most of her life trying to figure out how to be happy, or at least avoid total misery, which landed her on a meditation cushion for the majority of her adulthood. Throughout many consciousness adventures including a few mind-bendingly long meditation retreats, she has explored the wilderness of the mind, chronic illness, and the importance of pleasure. She teaches teen and adult meditation retreats across the country.