Recently someone on Instagram commented to me and said that her mind just can’t stay focused. She then asked how I calm down.
One of the most common complaints or questions I hear is a variation on, “My mind is too busy to meditate!” Some meditation teachers will tell you that’s not possible or true, but I understand that for some of us, it is.
As an overthinker myself, I understand that sometimes you just have so many thoughts coming at you that you truly feel like you can’t relax and let them go.
So how do you meditate when your mind is too busy to meditate?
There are probably a lot of options, but there are two that work really well for me. I recommend these just about every time someone tells me their mind is too busy.
Go with it
As you probably know by now, meditation is not about stopping thinking. It’s about simply letting your thoughts pass by without clinging or attaching to them. However, guided meditations or meditations in which you seek the answer to a specific question or problem do provide focus on something specific.
If your mind is just too wired, sometimes just going with it can be the best meditation.
How do you just go with it?
Sit down and close your eyes as you normally would for meditation. Take a few deep breaths. Then, like a boxer in the ring, mentally beckon your thoughts and say, “Come at me.”
Then simply sit and let all the thoughts that want to come up bombard you. Let them all surface and swirl and take you down a few rabbit holes if that’s what they want to do.
Think of these thoughts as being like a small child. You know how kids are when they want to show you something. They keep tugging at your shirt and calling your name until you give in and watch them or look at their new toy or shirt or haircut. Then once you’ve acknowledged them and oohed and aahed over whatever it is, they run off to play and don’t bother you again – until they find something new to show you.
These thoughts just want you to acknowledge them. They want you to hear them out and once you do, they’ll run off until they find something new to show you. By taking a moment to simply let them come as you give them your full attention, rather than trying to ignore them or force them away, you give them what they want and allow them to sigh and feel “heard.”
The disclaimer to this: If you deal with anxiety, this may make you feel overwhelmed and stressed out. I would not recommend you use this method unless you are already working with a mental health professional and they give you the go-ahead.
Do a brain dump
Another option to make meditation easier when your mind is too busy to meditate and you can’t focus is to do a brain dump before you meditate.
If you’re not familiar with brain dumps, this is simply taking a piece of paper and a pen (or you can use a digital document or note-taking app if you prefer) and writing down all the thoughts that are swirling around.
Don’t worry about neat handwriting. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar or punctuation. Don’t even worry about complete sentences. Just get all the thoughts out on paper. Write down all your thoughts until you feel like there are no thoughts left to write down. You might even write down a few thoughts more than once – and that’s okay, too.
Once you’ve written down all your thoughts, set the paper or device aside and meditate. You should find that your brain is much more cooperative now.
A brain dump works by tricking your brain. Think about the times you’ve gotten to the store with your grocery list, seen eggs on the list and thought, “Wow, I forgot about those.” Writing down what you needed on the grocery list allowed your brain to forget it while still ensuring you bought eggs, milk, etc.
The brain dump does the same thing. It reassures your brain that you intend to resolve those thoughts. You’re writing them down to come back to them later when it’s convenient for you – at least, that’s what your brain thinks. So it thinks, “Okay, cool. I can relax and stop thinking about that now because it’s on paper.” Paper (or your digital doc) has a sense of permanency.
Want to put that brain dump to use?
Some people write those thoughts down and never pick the page up again. Others like to go back to it and make it more useful. I recommend the following exercise if you want to put it to use:
- Wait a day or two to pick it up again. This allows you some distance from the thoughts so you can come back to it with some clarity and hopefully, a little less emotion.
- Grab a handful of highlighters in different colors. As you read through the thoughts, highlight them in the following ways:
- Use one color to highlight thoughts that need your attention. These might be things like tasks you need to do, conversations or phone calls you need to make, or other situations you need to deal with. These need to be things that need your personal attention – things no one else could handle for you.
- Use a second color to highlight things that need attention, but not necessarily yours. These might be things like cleaning the bathroom, parts of a project you’re in charge of, or a situation that is not yours to deal with (for example, your spouse’s complaints about their boss). These are things that you’re going to delegate to others, or nudge others to deal with themselves.
- Use a third color to highlight anything that is out of your control and/or can’t be changed.
- Now you’ll go back and create some lists with your highlighted thoughts. I suggest the following:
- Create a to-do list from the thoughts that need your personal attention. Organize it in order of priority, based on looming deadlines or what’s most important (or both). Include dates, if needed, and make notes about anything you need from others in order to do your part.
- Create a second to-do list for delegation. This is where you’re going to put those things like cleaning the bathroom, parts of an assignment you’re farming out to an assistant or a co-worker, etc. On this list, you want to put the task as well as the name of the person you’re delegating it to. Include any deadlines and other information that these other people might need in order to do their part. Then, and this is very important, immediately reach out to these people and ask them to handle their tasks. Tell your teenager you need them to clean the bathroom. Inform your assistant that you need her help on this part of a project and detail what you need her to do. It’s critical to do this part as soon as you’ve created the list so you don’t procrastinate and end up with these same thoughts coming back to distract you again.
- All the highlighted thoughts that were out of your control and/or couldn’t be changed, you’re going to consciously decide to let them go. You can’t do anything about them, and worrying, brooding, or trying to force control isn’t going to change it. So just let them go.
Sometimes meditation needs a little help
Meditation can sometimes have a reputation for being super easy, the idea that anyone can do it. And while it can be super easy, and anyone can do it, sometimes it needs a little help. Sometimes it’s harder to meditate than others, and sometimes you need to work a little harder to create the mental space to meditate.
Just because you have to take some additional steps to meditate, or have days that are more of a struggle than others, doesn’t mean that your meditation practice is wrong or ineffective. It needs to work for you. Whatever that looks like, if it works for you, it’s the perfect practice.