The first thing new students say to me is “Meditation is too hard. Every time I sit down, I keep getting distracted by my thoughts. My brain is just too busy to meditate, it must not be for me.”

My response to this is “Wonderful! That means you’re doing the practice.”

Meditation is hard only because of confusion

Everyone thinks that the entire point of meditation is to sit down, clear the mind of thoughts. To enjoy a peaceful bliss state for the entire duration. This is far from the truth. That would be like going to the gym and growing muscles just by being there.

Think about this for a couple of minutes. If you’ve ever lifted weights you understand the idea of completing repetitions. Each rep, is a cycle that helps increase your strength. In meditation, the cycle of focus, loss of focus, then regaining focus is one cycle.

In order to better understand this, we need to dig into a little bit of neuroscience.

Peripheral awareness directs your focus

In his book The Mind Illuminated, Dr. John Yates talks about a little known subconscious process called peripheral awareness. This is the process that is constantly scanning each of your sense spheres for important objects. Imagine for a moment, that you’re engrossed in a conversation with someone on a patio, during a nice summer day. There is a constant stream of people walking by. You are both so focused on the conversation that neither of you could indicate the color of clothing or even the gender of the last couple people who walked by. But when a beautiful man or woman wearing tight red clothing walks by, both of you have your attention drawn to them, almost at the same time.

How does this work? Neither of you were paying attention to the people walking by, and yet somehow, knew that there was someone interesting in the same moment. This is an example of how peripheral awareness works. Peripheral awareness directs your attention towards mental sense objects that you will either appreciate, or could potentially harm you. Things that are important.

How do we take advantage of this?

Train your subconscious like a child

Positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to reinforce positive behavior in a child or an animal. Your subconscious is no different. You cannot tell it directly what to do, or how to behave. What you can do is you can give it feedback in the form of appreciation or displeasure. Peripheral awareness takes its cues for future behavior directly from how you respond to the way it is currently behaving.

Think of our previous example, where peripheral awareness directed your attention towards the person in red. You followed that direction with an appreciation for the form of the person, enjoying their curves and choice of clothing. That feedback is accepted by peripheral awareness, and used to direct your attention in future cases where sense objects match that pattern.

Does this point towards why you think meditation is hard yet?

The one mistake nearly everyone makes during meditation

How frustrating is it, to expect to sit down, and be able to focus for 10 minutes? All you want to do is to clear your mind of thoughts and just relax. When you do,  you are inundated with nothing but thoughts? If you’re like most people, myself, and my students included, it can be very frustrating without the proper context.

Here’s the magic you’re looking for: The exact wrong thing to do during meditation is to become frustrated when you notice that you’ve become distracted by thoughts.

Remember how peripheral awareness directs your attention? Remember how it takes your reactions to it’s actions as feedback?

How to make meditation fluid

The trick is that when “you” finally notice that you’ve become distracted by thoughts, it is in fact peripheral awareness letting you know that you’ve become distracted. Responding with frustration only informs peripheral awareness that you dislike when it tells you that you’ve become distracted. This only serves to make future meditation cycles harder, and longer.

If instead you respond with appreciation, being thankful that peripheral awareness has notified you, magic happens. Over time, peripheral awareness becomes faster, and stronger at notifying you about distractions. Over time, meditation becomes fluid, becoming distracted, then focused almost automatically. Someday, you may find this process is bleeding into your daily life, and you start to feel more awake, alert, and focused.

In the next blog post I’ll get into how your mind is like the CPU of a computer, how meditation is like cranking up the MHz of that CPU, and what you can do with that extra brain power (hint: it’s not what you think!).