How to calm a restless mind during meditation?
—Supriya Chadwick, United States
In my meditation teacher training course I have several “mantras” I encourage the use of and one of them is: “To meditate well, you have to want to meditate!” You’ve heard the quote from Yogananda “The soul loves to meditate; the ego hates to meditate.” Well, that’s one aspect of mental restlessness. There are others, of course.
But considering this aspect alone, and before sitting or just as you first sit, ask yourself: “Why do I want or need to meditate?” For years when I was actively teaching “Learn to Meditate” classes I thought that emphasizing the reasons to meditate was superfluous because the students had already made that decision by enrolling in the class.
Over time, I realized for myself and others that with the many distractions and reasons not to meditate, we all need to constantly remind ourselves why we need or want to meditate. I won’t try to answer that because I know you have your own answers to that. Calmly review in your mind your reasons with each meditation (except perhaps when you are already deeply inspired to do so!). Then, having reviewed your reason(s), make the determination to set aside all else for whatever time, short or long, you commit to meditate.
Another thing I have learned over the decades is that “If you aren’t mindfully meditative during activity, you aren’t likely to meditate deeply when you sit.” Practicing japa or the presence of God throughout the day is what connects the dots between the “cushion” (of meditation) and the “chair” (of activity). This is an extension of the “want to meditate” necessity.
There are innumerable phrases and mantras one can use. Most of our active time is not so demanding of our concentration that we can’t remain prayerful within, even if, admittedly, the habit takes some effort to build.
Swami Kriyananda taught that the secret of overcoming mental restlessness isn’t the mind: it’s the heart. Begin each meditation in the heart.
Diving deep through the layers of restless concerns, memories, attachments and fears that cover the true Self in the heart, find the wellspring of inner peace and calm joy. Release that peace like the fragrance of a rose upward to greet the morning sun of wisdom at the spiritual eye to begin your meditation.
When, during your practice, restlessness returns, pause, and dive back into the depths of the heart’s natural love before continuing.
With long term devotee-meditators, we push ourselves by the clock or by the number of kriyas we are “supposed” to do. This habit creates inner, subconscious resistance and should be avoided. To remedy this, take shorter meditations and relax so that depth becomes more relishable than than mere length.
I suggest that for periods of time during your practices which are “well-worn,” devote your entire concentration at the spiritual eye and let the particular practice recede to the background. Intensely deep and relaxed focus at the spiritual eye will tend to banish mental restlessness which arises from the back of the lower brain. The intensity of focus at the frontal lobes creates a electromagnetic shield that keeps the hoi polloi at a distance.
Once you get the hang of this, see if you can bring back into simultaneous awareness the practice (or technique) into a both-and expansion of awareness. That isn’t easy to hold for very long. Neither of these should be enforced for any period of time longer than satisfying.
Last but not least, and not unlike the previous suggestion, visualize the Master’s eyes at your spiritual eye to the exclusion of your attention to the technique which, if long established, will not require a lot of your attention or energy. Use this whenever assailed by the demons of restlessness.
You may find it helpful to objectify your restlessness, as some imagine the Desert Fathers might have done, as actual demons to be dismissed with power and energy (and grace): “Get thee behind me!”
All is fair in devotion and meditation (to achieve the goal)!” We learn this from the Mahabharata and the lives of great saints everywhere. Patanjali too reminds us that success comes with intensity of awareness.