If I say, don’t think of a flower, definitely not a rose, what are you going to think of? First a flower, maybe even a rose, then definitely a rose. So what do you think will happen when you are told that you need to be thoughtless and that is meditation? Your mind will run rampant as you try to not think of anything, and you will be frustrated. So how to meditate?
With meditation being cited as the universal cure-all and solution to every problem in every religious and spiritual discourse, without ever being told how to go about doing it, dissemination of unhelpful one-liners like it being ‘a state of no-mind’ or ‘being thoughtless’, and worse still spiritual elitists saying it is not something one does but rather something that happens, it can be confusing and frustrating to the point where one just gives up.
Thought substitution is more doable, as in exchanging negative thoughts for a relatively pleasant one. Just like we distract ourselves by watching a movie. I find thinking of something I like and which scenario I can play in my head works very well for me to go off to sleep. In day-to-day work, it is easier to be mindful; single-mindedly consciously thinking of only the performance of the task at hand and not what I am going to do next or another such stray thought, but that is definitely easier said than done.
The second technique is ignoring. The thought comes, you know it is detrimental, so for example, I would say, “Okay, hello thought, thank you, but I need to move on”. That way I am kind to myself, not reprimanding myself for the thought and not dwelling on it either.
Meditation is the third technique. Now I say technique because the practice of instructions to train oneself to be in a meditative state is commonly referred to as meditation. Hence the debate about what meditation is. The purists say, “meditation cannot be done, it happens”, and mock those trying to practice a discipline. That is not helpful; it is demoralizing. Recognizing that meditation is a commonly used term for a practice and not for the meditative state itself helps bridge the gap – just as ‘medicine’, while a discipline, is a word commonly used in place of ‘medication’.
Meditation is not the exclusive domain of people who consider themselves spiritually accomplished either, just as breathing is not. It is not difficult; just different from the other two techniques. It is observing. So, say you close your eyes and these random thoughts begin. Observe the thoughts like a third party witnessing the goings on. Being thoughtless, in a meditative state, should follow as a consequence of merely being that observer.
One cannot really try and meditate. One can reach a meditative state by observing one’s thoughts. Such a meditative state is a temporary reprieve. In that sense too it is a practice – towards constantly being in a meditative state, being an observer, whereupon the practice is no longer needed.
If you are lost in thoughts, then that is agitation.
If thoughts are lost in you, then that is meditation.
— Swami Tejomayananda