Menu

How to Relax in Meditation When You Have a Busy Mind

“The Tao is always at ease. It overcomes without competing, answers without speaking a word, arrives without being summoned, accomplishes without a plan.” ~Lao-Tsu

As a longtime meditator and participant in the awakening process I am constantly on the lookout for hints that illuminate the path. I am open to these hints regardless of their source, so many of my teachers have been young children.

We may have many differing reasons to practice mindfulness and meditation. Regardless of the specific motivation, all meditators experience distraction and mental rebellion from time to time, and it can be quite frustrating. Many new meditators never get past the frustration and ultimately give up before they see the fruits of their efforts.

Although I never had a formal meditation teacher, I became engrossed in my own meditation process at a fairly young age.

Fortunately for me, I learned a lesson from an unexpected teacher, fairly early in the process, who helped me to transcend distraction and mental rebellion during meditation and throughout daily life. I’d like to share this lesson with you in hopes that it helps you to get more out of your meditation and life.

My wife regularly visited a large park in Tokyo for weekend strolls, picnics, and to walk the dogs. One day at the park a young Japanese girl unwittingly became my teacher.

We had agreed to meet a friend, Yuuji, for a picnic one Sunday. Yuuji brought his wife and his eight-year-old daughter, Kotomi, and we brought our dogs.

One of our dogs, Leila, is a Chinese crested dog, which is a small breed. Kotomi really loved dogs and wanted to walk one of ours, so we let her take the lead for Leila.

Kotomi was so excited to walk a dog for the first time! It would also be Leila’s first walk with a stranger.

My wife taught Kotomi how to hold the leash, how to keep Leila next to her during the walk, and so on. Kotomi listened and nodded that she understood.

Our little Leila was always great on walks, but as my wife handed Kotomi the leash, Leila looked at me incredulously. Clearly this was going to be a battle of wills.

Leila totally ignored Kotomi’s lead and began sniffing here and there to her heart’s content. Kotomi, feeling Leila’s weight on the leash, pulled the leash over her shoulder and leaned into the walk, forgetting all technique.

Not wanting to submit to this stranger, Leila leaned back against the leash and bucked against the girl. Kotomi just kept moving forward as if Leila wasn’t even there.

I kind of felt bad for Leila, but she wasn’t experiencing any physical harm. She was testing her new walker, which is not uncommon for dogs that have never been walked by anyone other than their family members. Curiosity had me, and I wanted to see how this scenario would play out.

Leila put up a great fight, but it was all for naught because Kotomi seemed oblivious to it. She was just excited to be at the park. I wondered if she had forgotten that there was a dog on the other end of the leash.

The dog fought; Kotomi just moved forward.

After five minutes, I began to wonder how long Leila could keep up her fight. Ten minutes passed with Leila still locked in resistance mode, so I considered taking the leash myself. But then, like the flipping of a light switch, Leila joined the walk.

Just like that, she surrendered to Kotomi and began smiling as she walked next to her new friend. For the rest of the day she was the perfect dog. She sniffed, wagged her tail, and even let Kotomi pick her up, the first stranger ever to do so successfully.

Kotomi had won a fight that she never even took part in! She just moved forward mindlessly.

After this experience I began applying the “forward motion” principle to my meditations to astounding effect. I just gave up any expectation that my mind was going to cooperate and instead simply moved forward.

How does that principle play out in meditation?

You know how it can be in meditation: The mind gets distracted again and again. There may be some physical aches and pains that the mind clings to. Then the mental resistance starts with statements like, “I’m not doing this right,” or “I have too much mental noise,” or “I don’t feel like meditating today, I’ll do it tomorrow instead.”

But now is the only time that we ever have! Tomorrow never was and never will be. It’s a figment of the imagination. Either we are moving forward in the moment or we are not.

Admitting the reality of now, I decided to sit in meditation for the allotted time, regardless of how my mind felt about it. I was not going to let distraction or frustration have any power. I determined to let the mind fight the good fight, while I moved toward my goal of deeper relaxation and clarity.

My mind was worried about work-related issues, reminding me of things that I already knew. Here’s what happened.

“Did you check the tests for grammar errors?” I took a deep breath, tensed my entire body and released it, relaxing my body and expanding my awareness globally.

“Don’t forget to print the tests first thing tomorrow morning!” I tension-released again, going deeper still into relaxation, opening awareness again in every direction.

“Remember to ….” In midsentence I tension-released into spaciousness.

I began to notice that my mind would go into little frustrated narrations when a thought arose, “Jeez, another thought,” or “Ah, again,” or “When is this going to stop?” Then it occurred to me that my reactive opinions of thoughts are also thoughts, so I decided to relax and expand at each such occurrence.

After a few minutes of expansive releasing, secondary thought ceased, but there was still the feeling of frustration when primary thoughts arose. I then included feelings into my breath-releases.

In short order, thought felt far away. Although thought still occurred, there was no feeling that it was my thought.

The breath-release-expansion continued at each distant thought, and after a time overt thought and emotion ceased entirely.

What was left were just little blips of thought and emotion, unformed and out of context. They came up out of the unconscious like little ripples in the stream of awareness.

There was a sudden insight into how the mind worked. Thought begins with these tiny little blips that the mind reacts to habitually by stringing them together with memories, effectively creating narratives, stories, and images that pull awareness out of the present.

It was like seeing behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, only to find a weak-willed con man at the controls. A debilitating illusion was broken.

Silence.

The lesson of moving forward worked! Just like every little step that Kotomi had taken in the park, so I moved forward, step by step, into a timeless clarity that was interrupted only by a beeping alarm. Thirty refreshing minutes had passed.

So, when you sit down to meditate, decide how long you are going to be there and be there for that allotted time, relaxing ever deeper into expansiveness. Accept that the mind will sniff here and there and rebel. Just keep moving forward through relaxed awareness into spaciousness.

Eventually something unexpected may happen. Before long the mind begins to follow your intent, silencing quickly.

When you stop fighting the mind, something else unexpected may happen. You may also cease to concern yourself over the mind’s assumptions, opinions, narrations, regrets, instant replays, and so forth.

Once there is insight into the mind through direct experience, there is no longer any need to fight or correct it. The dog will come along once it tires of the fight, and before you know it, you will have a new friend who supports your meditations—and your life.

About Richard L. Haight

Richard L. Haight is author of the number-one bestselling book The Unbound Soul: A Spiritual Memoir for Personal Transformation and Enlightenment, as well as a teacher of martial, meditative, and healing arts. He helps people on their personal awakening journeys. You can download his free, 13-part audio series, Taking Spiritual Authority in Daily Life, at www.richardhaight.net.

See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
  • Ruben Arribas Cañamares

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Pooja Joshi

    Such a great post Sir..thank you so much for sharing this experience..i ve been practising meditation for a while now without having any formal teacher..i am learning little by little through tiny buddha’s blog posts and other sources..there are times when my mind wanders like anything and there is too much noise..even in those moments i keep continuing my practise believing dat sumday it ll all get better..sumtimes i feel it wud b easy for me to ve a teacher around..but dats ok..ur post has just assured me dat i am on d right path and thank you soo much for dat sir..love from india

  • Richard Haight

    Wonderful, Pooja Joshi. My best wishes to you on your inward journey. Just keep moving forward.

  • Richard Haight

    Thank you, Ruben, for reading and appreciating.

  • So lovely. I have such a hard time turning off the mental to-do lists and worries, but this gives me encouragement to sit down and meditate today, and to go easy on the rebellious “dog” in my brain. We’ll give him 5 minutes today, so we don’t overwhelm him. 🙂 Thanks for the post!

  • A very peace and tranquil read. Thank you Richard.

  • Wonderful. I believe the most profound benefits of meditation come from a daily practice so yes there are times when just moving forward and doing is the way to achieve this. Having a trigger point (like straight after cleaning teeth) in a morning ritual helps me.

  • Richard Haight

    I’m so thankful that you enjoyed it, Scott.

  • Richard Haight

    Yes, getting a regular process going is really key. The old patterns will fight for their territory, so early on, there is nothing better that we could do with regard to meditation than to make it a routine.

  • Richard Haight

    I’d love to hear your feedback, Rebecca, should you feel so inclined to share your experience. Blessings.

  • I actually spent an hour in a salt tank this weekend meant to turn off your senses, and it was quite the challenge. I allowed myself to fidget and fuss, and eventually, it all turned off, and my brain floated to complete relaxation and creativity. The hour to myself helped me realize I can find this peace even in the chaos if I tune into it and not view the chaos as stress, but as simply being alive.

  • Steven MORTELL

    This post is extremely insightful! The practise is described perfectly by your story in the park. Beautifully written and articulated. Thank you very much for sharing.

  • Richard Haight

    Thank you for sharing, Steven MORTELL. When the mind becomes the ally, life takes on a whole new depth.

  • Richard Haight

    Yes, the attitude towards the chaos is key.

  • Lily Mathers

    This is so hard for everyone in my family right now, we got terrible news about a loved one’s health and none of us are sleeping. I will read all of this and give it a try!

  • Carla

    Tinybuddha has helped me so much over several years, but for me, Richard’s article is the best yet. I learned about seated meditation some 40 years ago but could never settled down, never do it, and even quit the staff of a yoga ashram because of the the hypocrisy I felt in teaching meditation when I couldn’t practice. Five years ago I started qigong in earnest and gradually learned concentration and focus but could still only “meditate”, after a fashion, once a week in our group before we started the qigong or tai chi, but my mind was still unruly and in control so I mostly just sat there following it where it led, trying not to disturb my classmates until the time was up.
    At home I was in despair and my inner pleas for help were answered in this article. One key factor was the bit about relaxing after tensing and taking a deep breath. In more than forty years of trying to concentrate on a breath meditation, the one thing I’d never done was relax. Sheesh! Another was Richard’s mentioning that he had a goal, that he would just let his mind do its thing while he walked forward toward his goal of relaxation and inner peace. In all those sad, frustrating years, I never had the practical goal that a beginner might need, though I did aspire to “realization,” but mostly I just floundered around making a “thing” out of trying not to fight with my mind, while not realizing I was actually fighting with it the whole time. Another of several reasons I was always exhausted, tired and depressed, anxious, angry and generally hard to be around.
    Now, I can sit for 20 minutes, which may not seem like much, but for someone who couldn’t sit for two minute, is progress! And not bad after just a few days, either! Now I know why I’m sitting and how to apply the teachings on how to meditate, including bits from other teachers that finally make real sense. I lay no claims to big achievement or attainment, but words cannot express how fine it is to’ve finally got off the starting block. It has also helped in my life off the meditation seat because I now have a tool close at hand by which I can practice that instruction to breathe and relax whenever I get stressed (and I’ve been so stressed my whole life that even in sleep my eyes remained open a little; how sad is that, to always be so on edge and alert…). I used to hold my breath so much during the day that I would have to sigh from time to time and kind people would ask me what was wrong. The only thing wrong was that I needed to breathe!
    So if you’re having trouble meditating, don’t give up! A great place to start is Richard’s article, but importantly, don’t follow any external teacher blindly, find–through your own trial and error–your own inner strength and teacher. As George Jones’ hymn-like C&W song says, “You got walk that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself. Nobody else can walk it for you, you got to walk it by yourself.” [But help is there!] Love to all of us and thanks again, Tinybuddha and Richard.

  • Leila Souza

    Thanks for sharing, had to comment that my name is also Leila. Hahahahahahaha love it!!

  • Richard Haight

    Hi Lily, I wish loved on well, and I hope you and your family are getting some sleep now. My family and I had that kind of news last year. Keep moving forward.

  • Thank you, Richard!! You could have been describing me and my mind. I’m definitely going to try the technique you describe. It may just be what I’ve been looking for,

  • Richard Haight

    Leila likes your name ;^)

  • Richard Haight

    I’d love to hear how it goes for you, Gerdi. Blessings.