Last updated July, 2018.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the end of this article (no email required).
The following post was written by Chelsea, our Chief Mindfulness Officer and creator of "ARC: mindfulness for children."
There's an old saying that "things often get worse before they get better." Many meditators believe this saying applies to their practice as well. Actually, they'll usually tell you there's improvement, followed by a proverbial "nosedive," followed by improvement once again (if you stick to it, that is). So, better-worse-better.
Why is this the case?
It doesn't apply to everyone, but - for many people - things go smoothly when they first learn to meditate. The novelty of their new practice helps them stay committed, and keeping their attention focused on an anchor (a mantra or the breath) appears to require little effort. The times when their minds "wander" seem few and far between, and they are confident they catch themselves each time! This leads to a feeling of accomplishment and serenity at the end of their sessions.
Then, one day, they can’t seem to keep their attention focused. They feel barraged by thoughts and emotions, and inundated by sounds and sensations - all of which seem to have multiplied exponentially since their last session. Trying to stay focused feels like an exercise in futility, and the prospect of returning their attention to an anchor once distracted seems impossible.
This continues to happen session after session, and the previous feelings of accomplishment and serenity are replaced by disappointment and frustration.
Could it be that their minds have actually gotten busier and more chaotic through meditation? No, absolutely not.
This is a common misconception, but reality is their minds are the same as they've always been: compulsive, pervasive, and incessant. Practicing mindfulness and meditation hasn’t changed this - it’s just making them notice more. In the beginning, they only notice a little and believe they are seeing everything that's happening.
As they continue to practice, however, they get better at noticing. And, they begin to see there is more going on than they initially realized!
It’s like the woman who finds out she’s pregnant and, as the days go by, it suddenly seems there are pregnant women everywhere she turns. Or the man who buys a new car and, over the next week or two, starts seeing the same car all over the road. The other pregnant women and cars were always there, they just got better at noticing them.
Our minds create a constant and pervasive stream of activity (thoughts, emotions, urges, sensations, etc.), the majority of which we are not aware of. Just like background programs on a computer, they exist below the surface of our current level of awareness.
Through formal meditation practice*, you strengthen awareness. As you do, this stream of activity is brought to the surface (so to speak). The more aware you become, the more you can practice "not getting attached to" - or, "not getting lost in" - thoughts and emotions. And, the better you get, the less your mind conditions your behavior and dictates your decisions and actions.
So it may sound counter-intuitive, but the fact that your mind seems busier is actually a sign of success! You should feel encouraged, because you've reached a baseline level of awareness that is allowing you to notice what's going on!
Becoming more aware of your mind’s compulsive nature and non-stop activity is the first step to creating more peace in your life. Who among us isn't in need of that?
*The good news is, we have a free guide to mindfulness and meditation that will teach you how to do it. It's been shared over half a million times, and you don’t need to register or provide any information - just go read it.
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Related writing: Mindfulness gives you time, choices, and freedom.