Meditation is an ancient practice that teaches us how to mind our thoughts so that they don’t mind us. It seems that within recent years, especially during the Panini, so many have taken up the practice as a means to keep up with the world’s demands: be that work, friendships, kids, side hustles, anxieties, or even pets! As someone who tries (keyword: tries) to meditate and maintain various spiritual practices regularly, I have found that meditation was one of the most important and life-clarifying practices to have tested and incorporated into my life and routine. Meditation is an incredible practice, and I would recommend that everyone try it at least once. The practice of observing your thoughts as they come, rather than identifying with them in the moment, really shows that where attention goes, energy flows.
That being said, I often struggle with meditation. I understand that it is an exercise for the brain– which is a muscle in a way. However, I find myself fatigued from the workout that is focusing on my breathing, and trying to undo twenty-plus years worth of failing to be mindful of my thoughts. Sometimes I even find myself using meditation in ways that it’s not supposed to be used. For instance, on really hard days when I just can’t quiet the voices in my head that are telling me how awful I am, I try to use meditation as a means to silence the negative thoughts and emotions– rather than let them flow and let them go. I try to numb or silence these negative thoughts via meditation– only to watch them grow more boisterous than the breaths I am supposed to be counting, or the mantras I am supposed to be reciting.
On days like these, my first reaction is to scold myself for not being “healed” enough to be good at meditation. But, once I work to silence my inner critic in the moment, I tell myself that I am at least being mindful enough to notice that my meditation is not working, and I substitute one of the following techniques:
1. Write something, with no pressure or expectations
And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the standard “Dear Diary,” format either! Sometimes, I fancy myself writing a letter to my future self, or a pretend audience that is eager to hear all of my thoughts (even the negative ones). I’ll even indulge my silly side by writing a little story about my day, or by turning my thoughts into a no-pressure story. Regardless, this method is a tried and true one. I have found that writing out my thoughts gets them out of my head and onto a page where I can leave them and revisit them if necessary.
I used to think it was counterproductive to use writing as a form of meditation, but I realize I only thought that way when I was attempting to use meditation to suppress something, rather than to observe something. I’ve learned that on the days when my thoughts are the loudest and most intrusive, it’s not because they need to be ignored or suppressed, it’s because they need to be heard. Writing has been a great way to get a bird’s-eye-view on my thoughts, and it sometimes even takes their power away by getting them out of my head and onto a page.
2. Get outside for some fresh air
I know this one is a bit cliché, but it’s really true. At times when I wasn’t intent on being mindful or present, I would only go outside for goal-oriented reasons: get groceries, exercise to lose weight, run errands, and the like. Now, when I go outside I try to get in touch with my five senses (while also still pursuing some goals because big wheels keep on turning). I describe all of the things I see to myself in my head, I listen to sounds and how they feel when they vibrate in my ears, and I (within reason, because you know, Panorama) pay special attention to how things feel in my hands. In this way, I get to stay present and connected, while not putting too much pressure on myself to get away from my thoughts.
3. Throw or Break Something
I think this form of release or presence has been frowned upon because 1.) when it’s done in the moment, it’s not typically done mindfully–it’s done in reaction to something (whereas mindfulness discourages simply reacting to emotion), and 2.) It represents repressed rage and anger, or emotions that are thought to be “low vibrational” emotions. Personally, I find that always trying to treat my “negative” thoughts or emotions like cute little butterflies that should be observed as they fly by, can sometimes be dismissive– and it’s like I’m dismissing myself! As I’ve begun viewing emotions as messengers rather than judging them, I’ve learned that frustration and anger or other “negative” emotions are telling me that something isn’t working, or a boundary has been violated. And sometimes, it just feels really damn good to break something when those things happen.
So, I’ll go to a safe area, protect myself (goggles, long sleeves, whatever), and throw something low-stakes. Usually I’m just launching my stress ball into the wall, but breaking an old dollar-tree plate that can’t be re-used feels good too. Rather than condemning myself for not “controlling” the thoughts that hurt me, I let myself express them in a safe, people-free environment. And once they’ve been expressed, they can be released.
4. Exercise, but not to lose weight
Like many young women, I mostly used exercise as a means to punish my body for not being the size I was told it should be. Instead, whenever I have time and my meditation isn’t working, I try to use exercise as a means of connecting with my body, and to feel how all of its parts work together to help me move. Experiencing what movement feels like in my body for its own sake has been a really fun journey– I get to test my muscles and see how they work, I get to stay present in my body and feel how it moves, and the lack of a workout goal (i.e., calories burned, stairs climbed, miles run, etc.) allows me to feel good about the movement in its simplicity. In exchanging my meditation for exercise, I’ve learned that movement can also be a form of meditation, especially when I’m present.
5. Talk outloud to yourself
I definitely feel like a woman people should be concerned about when I do this one– but still it works! And frankly, I don’t feel as bad about doing it, because the more I own it as a practice, the more I meet people who do the exact same thing! Sometimes hearing my own voice while talking about the things going on inside my head takes the power away from those things because I am in control of their release. When I say them outloud, they no longer have power over me, because they have been put into the world and out of my head. While they haven’t necessarily been released to other people in the world. I don’t know what it is really, there’s just something about saying what’s going on outloud that gives me the space I need to detach from it. Like, sometimes I hear myself and wonder, “wow, that thought was really giving me a lot of trouble, and it wasn’t even that deep”. Sometimes for extra measure, I’ll do this in front of a mirror. I get so lost in my thoughts that I forget that I am me, here, and present in a moment. Watching my thoughts in real time by speaking them in front of a mirror shows me what they are– just thoughts. When my reality doesn’t change in real-time just because my thoughts have been put out there, I see that I no longer need to give these thoughts power over me.
Overall, mindfulness through meditation is an amazing practice because it shows us where our energy is going. Speaking for myself, I’ve noticed that I place my own perfectionistic standard onto my meditation by trying to suppress thoughts that need to flow through and flow out. By incorporating different forms of “meditation” into my life, I can take the pressure off of myself to be a “perfect meditator” and just be present in practices that allow me to just…be. When I incorporate these practices on days where meditation just isn’t feeling so good, I am able to accomplish the goal of mindfulness by observing my thoughts without feeling bad about not being a good mediator. Mindfulness can take many forms, and the best practice is really the one that keeps you present and aware of your thoughts without letting them control you.
Vanessa is a third-year graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University, with a passion for all thing’s wellness, research, creativity and empathy. In her spare time, Vanessa enjoys learning guitar, reading and writing fiction stories as forms of expression and vulnerability. Vanessa can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.