I teach meditation classes. I don’t call it meditation, because we are moving around, standing up, standing on our heads, and breathing a ton. But we are meditating.
I thought I would always get away with teaching meditation without anybody knowing. However, one of my students figured me out, and now the jig is up. She sent me this cartoon and some wonderful feedback.
She wrote to me that this cartoon:
“made me chuckle and think of you BECAUSE this doesn’t happen to me in your yoga classes, though it has happened to me in other yoga classes in the past. I think it’s partially because you don’t tell us NOT to think about these things! Telling people NOT to do something like that often backfires. It’s also because your cueing and prompting and explaining focuses our attention in a positive and present way to what we’re doing and experiencing.”
Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant
Now you’re thinking of a pink elephant. Don’t think about your tongue. Now we’re all wiggling our tongues.
Telling students to “notice all the thoughts in your head” in order to reduce thoughts is the inverse of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell somebody to notice their thoughts, they’re going to fortify them. Perhaps students will start to get anxious about the fact that there are so many.
Human brains are designed to come up with stuff. A whole bunch of stuff. The more the better. It’s not some deep ancient insight when a yoga teacher sits everybody down at the beginning of class and points out the fact that, in all probability, your mind is racing. The most obvious thing about our minds is, if left unchecked, it will accelerate. My student noticed this, and perhaps you have too.
Pointing this out doesn’t make it go away. By observing the way our brains produce ideas and concerns, we add thought on top of thought. We all know the feeling of one thought leading to another, and another. And while this may seem exciting, it’s really the most mundane aspect of our brains; to belch out thoughts like widgets.
We can put the brakes on this mundane appearance of all thoughts by focusing on a single thing. Yoga Sutra 3.11 describes this intention:
“The attainment of the samadhi state involves the elimination of all-pointedness [i.e., wandering] of the mind and the rise of one-pointedness [i.e., concentration].”
What are our aims in meditation? In my yoga classes, my aim is to focus on movement, sensation, structure, stasis, breathing, and whatever thoughts our brain throws into the mix.
It could be argued that, on some level, we wind up focusing on a ton of things while practicing in a typical American yoga class. We focus on feet, then breath, then jaw, then hips, then shoulders. Isn’t this just the mind accelerating?
However, there’s a commonality in all these things: They are about physical sensation. The only place we can experience physical sensations are in the present moment. Observing the present moment is an amazing feeling. Whatever else the brain comes up with seems less important. The student who found me out noticed this, and realized she naturally drops her to-do list in class precisely because she isn’t reminded of it.
A name that may be named is not an enduring name.
—Dao de Jing
Calling something meditation can often get in the way of actual meditation. People have their own ideas about what meditation actually is: feeling like a lotus floating on a pond; retreating to a cave somewhere. Perhaps they think of that delicious dinner they had after their friend dragged them into a meditation session they didn’t want to attend. Whatever the experience, the word itself always brings something along with it.
“What is true meditation? It is to make everything: coughing, swallowing, waving the arms, motion, stillness, words, action, the evil and the good, prosperity and shame, gain and loss, right and wrong, into one single koan…make your saddle your sitting cushion; make the mountains, rivers and the great earth the sitting platform; make the whole universe your own personal meditation cave.”
So I don’t bother with the word. Once we have the feeling of something, we can drop the word. We’ve all had the feeling of meditation, without calling it anything. In my classes and workshops, I want to capture what meditation feels like, and I’ve found it’s best when I don’t name it.
I don’t start my classes by telling students to observe the speedometer of their brains. And I don’t tell them we’re about to start meditating. Instead, I start cueing and we start practicing yoga. Or meditation. Or whatever you want to call it.