How to Clear Your Mind in Meditation
Leading meditation groups, I’m often asked about clearing the mind or quieting thoughts in order to meditate. People ask how to clear your mind for meditation, how to clear your mind of negative thoughts, or how to clear your mind and relax during meditation. When I try new meditations on Insight Timer, I sometimes hear the instruction, “Clear your mind.” It’s a tall order, and often leads to confusion or the belief that we cannot meditate because the mind is active.
You Don’t Need to Clear Your Mind to Meditate
I am frankly not entirely sure what it means to clear or empty the mind on cue. This piece of advice does not feel pragmatic to me, but perhaps that will change sometime. If we could immediately just empty the mind, we probably wouldn’t find ourselves turning toward meditation practice. Furthermore, you don’t need a mind free from thoughts in order to practice. Yes, it can be hard when we’re dealing with monkey mind, but the thinking mind does not need to prevent us from practicing.
It happened when I was new to meditation, and still happens today. I sit to practice, and the mind just takes off. This is something to work with, not necessarily a problem or something that indicates we are bad at meditating. When I began meditating, I didn’t understand how to clear your mind of thoughts and be with the breath. No matter how hard I tried to force the thoughts down, they still arose. I strained, pushed thoughts away, and grew frustrated.
My experience with meditation personally has been that the mind is just another sense-door, just like the eyes that see. The mind thinks. That is one of its many jobs. Sometimes the mind processes information even when we don’t want it to. This is something to which we can bring mindfulness, cultivate some kindness toward, and change our relationships to. We don’t need to learn how to clear the mind completely in order to practice; we can use the thoughts as a place of practice to build awareness, patience, and freedom.
Working with the Thinking Mind
The Buddha’s instructions for meditation did not really include the instruction to clear the mind. Furthermore, he didn’t offer any instruction on how to clear your mind to practice. He did teach about dealing with unskillful thoughts that are harmful or evil in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta. He also specifically taught of brining mindfulness to the mental states and qualities of mind in his discourse on establishing mindfulness. Finally, in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta, the Buddha taught of two kinds of thinking: one that causes harm and suffering, and another that is wholesome and pushes us toward freedom.
We can work with the thinking mind and the thoughts that arise, recognizing when the thoughts are wholesome and when they are unwholesome. There are ways we can meet the difficult thoughts, but we don’t need to immediately try to clear the mind completely. Instead, we can tend to the thoughts and experience with our awareness, the same we we might tend to the breath with awareness.
Mindfulness of Thoughts
A practice that can help greatly is the practice of mindfulness of thinking. You can make the thinking mind and thoughts arising the object of your awareness, really tuning into the arising and passing of thoughts. Rather than pushing each thought down or trying to learn how to clear your mind of negative thoughts, you can turn toward them with a kind awareness. Here’s a guided meditation from the One Mind Dharma YouTube channel you can try that goes through this practice.
Sometimes, it can be useful to switch the awareness away from these thoughts and replace them with more wholesome thoughts. Specifically, you can switch to a loving-kindness meditation, or metta practice. If you’re experiencing painful emotions or thoughts, you may try switching to compassion instead. When you switch to a heart practice, you can do so out of recognition and kindness rather than judgement and aversion.
Although I don’t think it’s useful to set the goal of having a perfectly clear mind every time you meditate, you can work to collect the mind and focus better in meditation. Like other meditation methods, this is a practice and it takes time. As you continue to collect the attention and concentrate, you are training the mind to focus with less distraction. It eventually becomes easier to allow thoughts to arise and pass without getting hooked in so strongly to each thought.
If you’re interested in starting to meditate or want to build a daily practice, you can check out my Free 30 Day Meditation Challenge.