Conversations About Meditation

Most people share the same concerns and believe the same misconceptions about meditation; addressing them will help overcome the barriers to developing a consistent practice.  – Jon Andre

I was talking with a new student recently, and he expressed concerns about his practice.

His concerns were mostly steeped in common misconceptions about meditation. These misconceptions are prevalent, and lead to an unskillful approach as well as goals and expectations that aren’t likely to be met.

I recount the conversation below – it should be helpful to newcomers, as well as many who have been practicing for months and years. Most people share the same concerns and believe the same misconceptions, and addressing them will help overcome the barriers to developing a consistent practice.


Sometimes I enjoy my time sitting (meditating), but most of the time it is a painful experience. My mind is racing, I can’t focus, and I go through an entire session unable to stay with my breath for even a few seconds. This seems to do little good for my focus and productivity when I’m not meditating.

Will it ever get better? Will my mind ever stop wandering? Will I ever be able to control it like I want so I can see benefits in my everyday life?


First, these are common challenges that we all face – don’t be hard on yourself, and don’t think “it’s only you.” That’s another trick of the mind, and will cause you to abandon your efforts.

You ask “Will my mind ever stop wandering?” The short answer is probably not. Your mind will do what your mind will do. Thoughts come, thoughts go.

The good news is, it doesn’t matter what your mind does! Let me explain.

You mention control – meditation isn’t about controlling your mind. It isn’t about stopping it from wandering, either. Instead, it’s about controlling your attention and learning not to indulge your mind and its activity.

When you meditate, you focus your attention on an object (the breath, a mantra), and when you realize your attention has wandered – meaning you are caught up in thoughts, stories, or that “inner narrative” – you gently guide it back to your object.

When you aren’t meditating, instead of the object being your breath or a mantra, it’s the present moment. So, in this case, when you realize your attention has wandered, you gently guide it back to the present moment.

Your dedicated effort to sit and practice on a consistent basis makes it easier to recognize your attention wandering when you aren’t sitting and practicing. So, in your everyday life, you’ll be able to catch it happening sooner, and – eventually – you’ll get better at not following your mind down the same old paths that culminate in you being lost in thought, and getting caught up in conditioned behavior and habitual actions and reactions.

So, again, don’t look at it as controlling or stopping a wandering mind. Instead, look at it as distancing yourself from a wandering mind.

If you develop a consistent practice, you will get better at focusing your attention. You will get better at not indulging thoughts and other mind-made activity. You will get better at breaking out of habitual patterns.

And, most important, you will realize it doesn’t matter what the mind does, or what thoughts come and go – as you cultivate awareness and become more mindful in your daily activities, you will learn to use what you need, and let the rest pass like clouds in the sky.


That sounds great, but I have a hard time giving up the idea that I can’t control what my mind does, or what thoughts I have. And I’ve always heard that Zen masters – I use that term loosely…let’s say, experienced meditators – have a “quiet” mind. Is that not true?


Maybe a Zen master does have a quiet mind. Or, maybe he has cultivated awareness and learned not to indulge it. His mind may still be doing what it has always done, but he’s no longer caught up in it.

Regardless, whether the mind settles down or not, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s just like any other temporary phenomena that arises and passes. And, unless you identify with your mind and what it produces, you can simply watch it all come and let it all go.

But, when you identify with it – when you attach to what it produces, and cling to those thoughts and emotions you label “good” while trying to push away those thoughts and emotions you label “bad,” you cause yourself to suffer. That’s the normal state for most of us – identifying with the mind and its activity. Being “lost in thought,” as Tolle says.

The common but mistaken view people have when they come to the practice is “Oh, I’ll meditate and that will allow me to control my mind.” Or, “I can teach/train (force) myself to only think positive thoughts and eliminate negative ones.”

That’s the primary reason people give up, or fail to develop a consistent habit. They believe in control, and until you see that control is an illusion, there can’t be any real progress.


That makes sense, and I understand identifying with thoughts causes me to suffer. But, thoughts themselves cause me to suffer too! I have the same, repetitive thoughts – day in, day out – and it wears on me. It affects my self-confidence, my work, everything I do. Saying thoughts don’t cause my misery just isn’t true, which is why I started meditating to begin with. I want to stop those repetitive, damaging thoughts.


I understand the frustration. But, it really isn’t thought that causes you to suffer. It’s the attachment to thought. It’s labeling certain thoughts as good, and clinging to them. It’s labeling other thoughts as bad, and trying to push them away. All of it is mental gymnastics.

Thought is simply temporary phenomena that arises and passes. To say it causes you to suffer is like saying the car alarm going off outside causes you to suffer. The car alarm – like thought – is benign.

But, you weave a story around it. You make yourself a victim. Your mind tells you reality should be different than it is. You judge, label, and have expectations about how things should be, which means you don’t accept how they actually are.

When you cultivate awareness through meditation, however, you can watch it all unfold. You see the thoughts, the stories, the inner narrative – and you learn not to get caught up in any of it. You learn not to follow your mind down the same old paths that culminate in conditioned behavior and habitual actions and reactions.

And, you stop creating suffering for yourself.

Captain Jack Sparrow famously said “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.” This applies to your mind. The problem is not your mind, the problem is your relationship with your mind!

A consistent meditation practice will teach you to stop getting lost in thought, and stop following your mind wherever it leads.


That makes sense, though I’ll probably need it reinforced numerous times before I truly internalize it.

One thing that really bothers me, though, is the talk about control. This kind of feeds into the “free will” debate. Does it exist, does it not?

I want to believe I can control things – my mind, my efforts, what will happen to me. If I choose to work hard while someone chooses to be lazy, I want to enjoy the fruit of my efforts. If I decide to change aspects of my life for the better, I want to know it will be worth it.

But, if control doesn’t exist and “free will” is an illusion, it seems it’s all for nothing – whatever is going to happen is going to happen, no matter what. That bothers me.


If you don’t have free will, it doesn’t mean your future is predetermined. And, if control is an illusion, it doesn’t mean you can’t change or that your efforts won’t pay off.

You can do something today that will change your life tomorrow. A lack of free will simply dictates you don’t know why you’ll do something today that will change your life tomorrow! You can say you made a decision and took action, but you have no control over a lot of factors (causes and conditions) that went into that decision. You don’t even have insight into a lot of factors (causes and conditions) that went into that decision – some of them may very well stretch back to before you were even born.

That’s the part of control that’s an illusion, and seeing it helps you develop compassion for yourself and others around you.

To elaborate, suppose I made a decision to drink coffee instead of tea. I can say “I intentionally decided to drink coffee.” But, I can’t tell you why I made that decision because I’ll never have access to every cause and condition that went into me doing so. And, any attempt to reduce it down to a single factor (“I smelled the aroma from my wife’s cup”) is an attempt to prop up that illusion of control.

So, it’s important to make decisions and take action. What you do today will become part of the causes and conditions that shape tomorrow. But, it’s also important to realize that everyone – you, your family, your friends, your enemies – lacks the control we often ascribe to them.

Once we have that realization, we can be more gentle with ourselves and with everyone else. We can truly understand that “to walk in someone else’s shoes” means we couldn’t do anything different than they did because, if we were truly subjected to all the factors (causes and conditions) that shaped their existence, we wouldn’t be able to.


That’s a lot to take in, but I think I get it. The question is, will I remember it?

Knowing I forget more than I remember, if you could reduce it down to one sentence, what would you say meditation is?


The practice of meditation in its simplest form is cultivating awareness of everything that arises in consciousness, learning to see its temporary nature (what arises will pass), and learning not to follow it all down a path that culminates in conditioned behavior and habitual actions and reactions.

Everything else is just the mind trying to make things more complex, and hold on to its position of power!

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