illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
« I have tried to meditate in the past… I have achieved no-mind for a total of about 3 milliseconds over the course of my life; no joke!
Pema Chödrön advocates saying to yourself gently and kindly, "thinking" when you catch yourself thinking, then return to watching the out breath. When I try that, it's "thinking, thinking, thinking… thinking, thinking, thinking… thinking, thinking, thinking" non-stop, followed by rage and frustration and this all in a frame of a few seconds. Yes, i give myself a chance to recover every 10 milliseconds or so, and it's right back to grinding, maddening frustration.
Has anyone else had similar experiences? What have you done? I am beyond lost.»
Good news is, when you're "lost" like this, it's because you are in unchartered territory (from your perspective)… but, if you share the maddening meditation symptom, you're definitely in the right direction!
As Pema points out, every time you use the label "thinking", you should return to the breath. That's it.
Most likely, if you're frustrated, it's because you misidentified the goal of meditation: don't expect that the "return to the breath" will last! It normally doesn't, and this is just the sign of a functioning brain!
Every time you label your object of attention (be it "thinking", "raging", "breathing", whatever!), it means you took a step back! It means you're no longer obsessed or mesmerised by the object.
Every time you label your frustration, "raging, raging, raging", you take a step back, i.e. you create an opportunity to respond differently (from the response you've given so far…), i.e. you create freedom!
Hence, when you're labelling your "raging" thought process every 10 milliseconds, you are doing great!
Most people are asleep: they label their thought process every 5 minutes, or so… and they get lost in thoughts in between!
If you can step back from your rage every 10 milliseconds, you're extremely 'present'. So you're doing extremely well!
You're getting frustrated only because you're not experiencing what you expected meditation to be.
The next phase of your path is then to relate to thoughts differently (for the avoidance of doubt, this is not to suppress the thoughts).
Remember: every time you label your thoughts (including of frustration), you take a step back, i.e. you create an opportunity to respond differently, i.e. you create freedom.
This freedom, this "step back", allows you to relate differently to the thoughts, e.g. to have a sense of humour about your expectations of "perfect calm" in the midst of ordinary busy life.
This freedom, this "step back", which allows you to relate differently to the thoughts, is itself of value!
It is so because, in ordinary life, people believe their thoughts: as soon as they have an idea, they "have to" act on it! That means they're victims of their thoughts, the thoughts (including lust and aversion) control them.
The ability to take a step back allows to reflect on the thought, and maybe realise it isn't such a great idea…
The "taking a step back" is a fundamental skill (that you're cultivating further, thanks to meditation) to avoid naïveness, to avoid falling prey of all our thoughts and desires as soon as they arise, to avoid taking ourselves too seriously and considering our 'thoughts' as automatic 'truths'…
The maddening part is due to clinging to an erroneous view of what meditation 'should' be, or of what the experience of meditation 'should' be. It's time to drop such an expectation.
"No mind" is not automatically 'silent'; it's noisy if the environment (including intellectual environment) is noisy. Don't fall for the big confusion between "no mind" and silence. Silence isn't always 'appropriate' and appropriateness is the manifestation of wisdom…
"No mind" simply is not letting the expectations and the projections of the mind take over, or bias, your perception of "reality as it is".
"No mind" is… not letting "(mind-made) stories" take over reality.
When a judgemental attitude towards "busy mind" makes meditation frustrating, you're biasing your experience due to expectations (about meditation), so you're definitely "mind, mind, mind".
The fantastic, good news though is that if you're aware of your frustration, so you've done most of the hard work already!
Now, you need to drop the expectation about what meditation is.
Then you can relate differently to your thoughts.
You can e.g. see which thoughts keep coming back, thus asking you a different response (maybe even further enquiry, not less, for a better solution to be found!)…
You can e.g. see which thoughts lead to stories, and which ones only arise then cease…
You can e.g. see how thoughts arise in dependence with changes in your environment, and maybe learn how to be wiser by influencing the environment constructively so it influences you 'back' constructively too ("co-dependent arising" isn't just a nice theory, it can be applied science too: e.g. adjusting a meditation posture, or the time in the day, or the food eaten might all be relevant).
You can e.g. see how thoughts are 'just' thoughts: for example, anger might arise from thoughts about something that happened, or about what someone did… and then you realise that nothing is happening right now, it's all in your head right now… You're suffering right now only because of narratives in your mind! Isn't there any other thought you could have that would be more constructive than just torturing you?
For more on meditation: koan.mu/meditation.htm
Image: the Buddha and the three daughters of Māra.
The daughters of Māra (the God of death) are a personification of temptations and distractions, a personification of thoughts that take our freedom (i.e. our meaningful, conscious life) away.
Each time Māra approached the Buddha, the Buddha simply said “Mara, I see you,” and Māra fled. Because the Buddha knew Māra thoroughly, his act of clear seeing was effective in bringing freedom.
You might note that the Buddha doesn't deny or reject Māra; he sees the distractions, but by being aware of seeing them, he automatically steps back thus doesn't get entangled in them… Don't suppress the thoughts! Relate differently to them!