On the other hand, when we hear the phrases ‘mind control’ or ‘control freak’, the implications aren’t generally positive.

In other words, control can be both desirable and problematic. For meditators, the desire for control can be highly motivating. On the other hand, too much control can lead to a practice characterised by rigidity and intolerance, in which thoughts and emotions are seen as hindrances, or problems to be overcome, rather than as normal aspects of experience that we can explore and know.

It can be useful then, to look at the ways in which you approach meditation:

  • What habits or attitudes do you bring to the practice?
  • Are there ways in which you try to control your experience?
  • What do you find difficult to tolerate?
  • Are there emotions that you feel are not acceptable, or welcome in meditation?
  • Are there strategies or rules that you feel you must adopt, or instructions that you persist with even when they don’t seem fruitful?

I’ve noticed that many people bring two — often unconsciously held — traits or behaviours to meditation:

Firstly, a tendency to regard meditation instructions as perfectly and perpetually reliable. That is, students assume that by following a particular meditation instruction they will invariably find themselves with calm minds, less stress, better health, or whatever it is they seek from meditation. There is some chance that this will happen, but it’s not because of the meditation technique. Any so-called success would be the result of how they meditate; of the attitudes and skills they adopt and the ways in which they relate to their experience. In this respect, a meditation technique is like a tool or instrument (a guitar, for example). Having a guitar does not guarantee that you’ll be able to produce music. Sure, it’s a good start; but it’s how you play the guitar that counts.

The second trait people often bring to meditation is a subtle — or sometimes not so subtle — aversion to thoughts and emotions. Meditation may be seen as a way to escape from thoughts and emotions, or a place to temporarily put them aside in order to find a deeper sense of peace and calm.

The desires for a perfect meditation technique or strategy, and for a practice that allows us to avoid the tumult of thought and emotion, are both seductive and understandable. But they are often accompanied by a sense of failure. Why? Because if you follow a meditation instruction without awareness of the underlying mental attitudes and habits you bring to the practice (and with the expectation that it will work every time), you will likely find yourself feeling restless, frustrated and incapable. And if you fail to permit yourself to think and feel through things, then you may just create for yourself a backlog of mental and emotional disturbances that are never satisfactorily processed.

What’s needed then, is a way to evaluate what you do when you meditate. If you don’t investigate your approach you may well bring the same habits to any practice you try. You might continually search for new techniques, only to find that nothing within really changes.

This dynamic arises, in part, because when we receive instructions we are motivated to do them properly. Instead of considering what we’re actually getting out of a practice we become concerned, even anxious, about whether we’re doing them correctly. We find ourselves judging ourselves, or envying the experiences of others, or feeling inadequate, failing; or at other times like we’ve finally got it. We’re continually caught in this cycle; trying to get the instructions right, or have the correct experience, or have the right state of mind.

All this takes us away from our actual experience – which is what we can actually learn from.

Instead of trying to follow instructions correctly, as though they were sacred or inviolable, we can treat the instructions as suggestions, as directions to explore. By adopting this kind of exploratory attitude, anything that you experience during meditation becomes a valid subject to know and understand. Agitation, boredom, lust, sleepiness, anger, sadness, desire: these are all things you can learn from, or be with, or tolerate or accept better. These, I believe, are useful aspirations. These are the kind of aspirations that make meditation a fertile territory, rather than a ground for conflict and censorship. Adopting such an attitude, however, is not necessarily easy.

You may find yourself reluctant to be receptive to the full range of human experience. You may not want to sit with your mind spinning, with worries, with memories of a difficult day, with thoughts of what you have to plan for tomorrow, with physical discomfort and so on.

If you’ve been drawn to meditation as a way to escape, or if you’ve practiced techniques which reinforce our natural tendency to avoid discomfort, then this resistance may be heightened. When you begin to let yourself think and feel whatever is spontaneously arising during meditation, you will likely find yourself wondering whether you are getting anywhere at all. You’ll find that there are parts of your experience that you don’t like. Rather than feeling some optimal state of flow, you may feel like you do for much of the day. You’ll probably consider much of your thinking to be trivial or mundane. But that’s the point. You sit and think about all sorts of things that you would think about normally. You allow yourself to feel the feelings that you have throughout the day — but don’t normally have time to feel (because you are engaged in work, or conversation, or distraction).

There is less structure in such a practice; fewer reminders (for example, to come back to the breath), and less demanding intentions. Structures organise your experience and they can work some of the time; partly because they are relatively simple and clear, and partly because they seem to be purposeful. But structures invariably suggest than some parts of experience are acceptable and some parts are not.  The directive to focus on your breath (or to scan your body, or to repeat your mantra) can be helpful, but it may not be entirely innocuous. Why? Because when you rely too much on a structure or instruction you are likely to devalue much of what you experience during meditation. If you aren’t focused on the breath, for example, or if you decide that you are thinking too much, or not feeling as relaxed as you should, then what you are actually experiencing is seen as worthless or wrong.

So while some structure can be useful in meditation, it also tends to act like an over-zealous censor. By continually directing your attention to the breath you inadvertently interrupt the natural flow and trajectory of your thoughts. You might then assume that they’re gone, dead, finished and that they won’t come back; but they do! They pop back to life.

And how can you become aware of your thinking if you pay it no attention? How can you change thought patterns, or see what’s driving or perpetuating them, or in what ways they might be dysfunctional, if your primary endeavor is to focus on something else?

I don’t believe you can become aware of your thoughts if you continually try to stop them.  More confoundingly still, I believe that it’s also very difficult to become aware of your thoughts if you try to become aware of them (for example, by viewing them as passing clouds, or leaves floating down a stream). These techniques can both be useful at times, but if practiced exclusively, they may prevent you from discovering other, perhaps even more useful modes of understanding yourself.

Why? Because thoughts behave differently depending on how aware you are of them. In other words, the way you think changes according to how you relate to your thoughts. So, if you relate to them in an artificial way, as you must inevitably do if you apply some meditation technique, then you’re unlikely to learn much about how you actually think, most of the time (for example, when you are not meditating).

What’s required then, is for you to let yourself (at least some of the time) meditate without a structure, or guidance, or rigid adherence to instructions and expectations. Instead, you can just sit, and see where time takes you. You can become aware of your thinking as a process which has a life of its own. You might allow yourself to get lost, or caught up: planning, rehearsing conversations, reviewing memories, and so on. This is going to happen some of the time anyway, so why fight it? Instead of trying to end these natural processes (which research suggests have many important functions and contribute to a healthy mind), you can look for ways to be more tolerant and accepting; to be kind and gentle rather than judgmental and aggressive, and to embrace whatever it is that you are experiencing.

With these kind of attitudes you may be surprised to find that you have no (or less) problems with your thoughts and emotions. There’s less conflict. Conversely, if you have a practice, or the idea that you should be clearing your mind of thought, or feeling perfectly calm, then thoughts and emotions tend to become distractions, or irritants. Conflict arises. But does conflict cease by continuing to feed it, or does it cease through attitudes of kindness and tolerance? If you let yourself think through things you may find that they stop all by themselves. The fact is that we can’t hold onto our thoughts (or emotions) for all that long.

Much of the difficulty we have with our thoughts and emotions is driven by our fears that they will be too intense, or too chaotic, or that they will hijack our whole sitting, or our whole life. But what happens if we look at this fear? What happens if our intention is to learn about, understand and get to know our emotions, and how they inter-relate with our thoughts?

With less structure, we give ourselves the opportunity to discover how dynamic our experience is; how it moves and changes. We may find that we can’t even find a fixed experience, say of anger or boredom or frustration, once we start looking for it. We start to find that thoughts and emotions continually move and change;  and that anger might unexpectedly morph into sadness or even happiness. But this can only happen if you allow the process to unfold.

Instead of seeing thoughts and emotions as something you need to do something with, see them as something you can look at.

It’s not so much what it is that you are experiencing (anger, anxiety), but how are you relating to those feelings.

The problem is not the content. The problem may be with how you relate to that content. Are you harsh, or critical? Are you putting a lot of pressure on yourself to manage or control it? You don’t necessarily need to appreciate it, but you may consider that there’s something within your experience to know.

All these thoughts and emotions are asking to be listened to.

Things coming up are the natural consequence of sitting, being still, and being with your mind.

You won’t find your experience becomes and remains static. You won’t just find yourself in a calm state, full stop, that’s it!

You have much less control over your mind than you realise, and this is not a bad thing. There’s much of mystery in this. The techniques to get you calm, to get you focused and to produce insight rob you of this mystery.

With an open practice things come, things happen. They might not be what you expect, or what’s written, but they may be helpful.