Last updated July, 2018.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the bottom of the page (no email required).
The following post was written by Chelsea, our Chief Mindfulness Officer.
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 (i.e., they strengthen awareness). 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 - as the days go by, she seems to encounter pregnant women everywhere she turns. Or, the man who buys a new car - over the next week or two, he starts noticing 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 blind to. 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; this brings the stream of non-stop activity to the surface (so to speak). The more aware you become, the more you can practice "not getting attached to" or "lost in" thoughts and emotions. You can observe the mental activity without getting caught up in it (without getting swept away by it).
The better you get at observing, the less your behavior is conditioned by your mind. And, the less your decisions and actions are dictated by the stories that constantly play in your head.
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?
Address the root cause.
Your struggles and suffering - whether it's stress, feelings of anxiety or depression, low self-confidence, extreme emotions...or anything else - are caused by the difference between the way things are and the way the mind thinks they should be.
Does it make sense to continue trying to control everything "out there" to conform to the mind's expectations? Or, is a more skillful use of your time and energy changing the way you deal with the thoughts and stories the mind constantly churns out?
If you believe it's the second option, continue reading...