Muddy water is best cleared by leaving
it alone.

—Alan Watts

While we meditate we struggle to bring our mind into the present moment. We hear the instruction “Be here now,” but when we try to do it, our mind wants nothing to do with it. We dislike this very much. We want to follow the instructions and be good little meditators but we keep finding that our mind won’t listen to our demands. When our mind has no interest in our desire to stay present, we try forcing it to stay, and this, of course, backfires. 

There are two analogies I like to teach when working with people who are trying too hard. One is to imagine our mind as a very wavy pool. Forcing it to be quiet is like taking a huge bat and hitting the water to try to get the waves to stop. Obviously, the result is more waves. 

The other analogy is the muddy-water analogy. Imagine a jar filled with water that has mud stuck to the bottom. On a typical day, our mind is the equivalent of this jar being gently shaken. This makes the water brown and no longer transparent. When we try to force our mind to be quiet, it’s as though we are violently shaking the jar, hoping this will make it clear again. The only thing we can do to settle the mud is put the jar down and leave it alone for a while. When we do this, the mud will eventually settle, making the water clear once again. It may take some time, but with a little patience our mind will settle if we can just leave it alone for a while. 

In fact, we can think of our meditation practice as the art of leaving things alone. Part of the reason we fight our thoughts is that we have a belief that our mind or our meditation practice should be a certain way. Expectations will always block you from settling into the present moment. “In meditation my mind shouldn’t be busy.” “My mind should be still.” “Shouldn’t I be feeling calmer by now?” On top of the original few thoughts, which distracted us to begin with, we now begin adding more of them. The frustration builds because it’s not going how we think it should, so we try even harder to change the situation, adding even more thoughts. More thinking and more strain equal more waves and more dirty water!

Instead of using this method of force, we can try letting our mind be—just leave it alone. Don’t react to it or engage with it. Think of the random wandering thoughts like a radio that was accidentally left on, creating a background noise—let’s just say for the sake of this analogy that it’s a boring, nonsensical talk show. Allow the thoughts to be there. We don’t have to try to turn them off, nor do we have to indulge in them; we can rather let it be in the background, allowing each thought to come and go. Eventually the mind will quiet down—or not—in its own time. Remember, the effort isn’t in trying to stop the mind but in paying attention in a receptive way to what’s actually happening. We aren’t trying to get rid of thinking, just learning to relate to it rather than live from it. 

If one thought just will not stop arising, then simply label it. “Having a thought about work tomorrow.” “Thinking about the hurtful words my friend said to me the other day.” “Obsessing over something I can’t change.” “Ah yes, my mind is worrying about this.” By practicing with our thoughts in this way, our minds will naturally begin to open and slow down, leaving us with a spacious, receptive mind.

The bottom line is that we need to stop needlessly shaking up the jar. Put it down and allow the dirt to settle to the bottom, leaving the water clear and calm, as it once was. 

Accept whatever the mind is doing, and let it settle on its own. 

Excerpted  from Your Life is Meditation © 2020 by Mark Van Buren. Reprinted with permission Wisdom Publications

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