Learning to Quiet Your Mind Without Putting Yourself Down

One of the primary benefits of a daily meditation practice is that it enhances your ability to find a place of peace within. Yet there is a myth that to get to this state, you must strive to quiet your mind. It's not uncommon for beginning meditators to criticize themselves for not being able to stop their thoughts. This often leads to frustration. It's also the main reason that many people give up on meditation altogether.

The irony is that the very mind that you are trying to calm is judging how well you are calming it. But learning meditation should be the last thing to add more stress to your life! There is a powerful resource within mindfulness that can help you patiently train your mind to "sit still."

This resource is the attitude or quality of non-judgement. It’s a way of “being with” your own busy mind rather than pushing against it, allowing you to enjoy the present moment and the learning process.  This quality can also be called upon throughout the day to help you relieve feelings of anxiety if you notice your mental chatter becoming too negative or critical.

Overcoming the “my mind is too busy to meditate” myth

Just as you can’t stop your stomach from digesting food, you can’t stop the mind from thinking. Meditation is a tool to help you become more aware of your thoughts rather than identifying with them – especially the negative, painful, or judgmental ones that cause stress. Instead of trying to stop the waves of your mind, you can learn to observe their natural ebb and flow - without getting caught up in them. 

As you learn to meditate, you may notice yourself judging your meditation. Thoughts such as “Am I doing it right?” or “I’m thinking too much” may arise. I’ve worked with many people over the years who assume that thinking is bad. They feel that doing it right means their mind is absolutely free from all thoughts. When that doesn’t happen, they judge themselves and feel bad. They may even give up, thinking “I’ll never be able to meditate. My mind is too busy.”

But meditation was meant to be about watching the thoughts and emotions that arise without the need to cling to them or push them away. Ironically, our desire to be free of thoughts prevents us from letting go of them to begin with. We are placing our attention on the mental chatter rather than on the simplicity of the present moment. 

Cultivating the right mental environment for meditation

When you’re starting out with meditation, your attention is like a baby colt with long spindly legs just trying to stand up for the first time. You wouldn't judge him as he shakily tries to rise, would you? In a similar way, you may notice your attention wandering back to the stream of your habitual thoughts. When that happens, you can remind yourself to treat your mind with the same kindness and gentleness as you would the baby colt.

Learning happens best in an environment of friendliness and encouragement. Learning to meditate is no different. If you have a teacher to guide you, they can help remind you of this. If you’re learning to meditate on your own, you may need to keep reminding yourself to create that inner environment until it becomes a habit.

Be on the lookout for automatic judging. When you spot it – and this may sound funny – don’t judge the judging! It’s really just another form of thinking. Instead, practice noticing that judging is occurring. Let it go and as best you can return your attention to the feeling of your breath. 

Non-judgement goes hand in hand with acceptance of the present moment. The more you can notice something without resisting it, the more you strengthen your mental muscles of peace, calm, and mindfulness. 

“Whatever you accept completely will take you to peace, including the acceptance that you cannot accept, that you are in resistance.” -  Eckhart Tolle

In meditation – and in life – turn obstacles into opportunities

When you sit down to meditate, giving your mind the instruction to “feel and stay with the breath,” you will likely find that it has other ideas - lots of them! Perhaps it’s planning dinner, wondering whether you turned off your curling iron, remembering someone’s rude comment, or replaying what you saw on TV last night. No need to judge yourself - this happens to everyone, including experienced meditators. 

When you notice this, recognize that the very act of noticing that your mind is not on your breath is your moment of power. This is where you have the chance to bring the attitude of non-judgment to your aid. You have something to work with other than your thinking mind – your attention.

Once you notice your mind is busy thinking and not feeling the breath, in that very moment YOU’RE ALREADY BACK in the present moment. You’re not labeling it as good or bad, you are simply becoming aware of what is happening right now.

“Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.” - Shunryu Suzuki

Non-judgement as a way to reduce stress and feel more compassion

If you apply it beyond your meditation cushion, non-judgement can transform your relationships with others – and yourself. Your ability to not get caught up in your habitual thoughts results in a greater feeling of being present. The fight-or-flight response that can come with judgmental thoughts gets triggered on a less frequent basis. You are teaching your body to respond from a more conscious and peaceful space rather than from fear or stress.

We rarely realize how many times throughout the day we judge ourselves. Ironically, we may even criticize ourselves for negative thoughts or feelings that arise. This judging of our very own thought patterns only keeps us stuck in the same habitual loops day by day.

The way out is to step back enough to observe the unkind thoughts we have toward ourselves or others. Rather than beating yourself up for not thinking “happier” or “kinder” thoughts, you accept that your thoughts are simply what they are: mental events (and not necessarily accurate or factual ones). 

Two Mini-practices for bringing non-judgement beyond the meditation cushion 

1) Recognizing and releasing self-judgement

As you work on your next task or project, notice any self-critical thoughts that arise. Instead of trying to push them away, be grateful that something within you was present enough to notice these thoughts. You can then get back to your activity with a renewed state of mind. Notice that you are simply doing what you are doing – without the extra layer of mental resistance that would normally cause you stress.

2) Recognizing and releasing judgement of others

When you interact with family members, co-workers, clients, or even strangers over the next few days, notice any judgmental thoughts that arise. Don’t judge yourself for these thoughts – we are all conditioned to have them. Notice that there is a space within you from which you can respond to even “difficult” people with more kindness and compassion. I sometimes call this “advanced practice”! Experiment with treating others differently, extra-kindly (even though that may not be your first impulse), and observe the impact of your kindness on them. See if treating difficult people with an extra helping of compassion helps you see yourself in a brighter light as well.

Training your mind to be more attentive and less judgmental can help you build more calmness and resilience. Meditation is the perfect tool to practice the quality of non-judgement on the cushion before applying it in daily life. My Mindfulness for Stress Relief online course offers 6 Steps to Less Stress -  practical ways to help you with your mindfulness and meditation practice plus live weekly classes where I support you along the way. Click here to learn more and save your seat for the next enrollment term. 

Want a quick overview of mindfulness and three simple practices to help you reduce stress today? You can get access to my free “3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief” webinar here.

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