An online search for images of mindfulness conjures up pictures that suggest calm, peace and serenity. The reality, as many who have engaged in the practice will attest, is usually quite different.
We sit and prepare ourselves for a mindfulness practice. Our intention is simply to notice what is here, in each moment, to allow it to be as it is and do our best to bring a gentle attitude to it. Yet our busy minds have ideas of their own which often overrule this intention within seconds. Before a minute has passed we may well have had thoughts that there is something else more important that we should really be doing, memories of interesting or problematic events of the last few days, plans of what we should say at our next work meeting and re-runs of past conversations running through our mind. We may also have experienced a resistance to these thoughts, a sense that they 'should not' be here just now while we are trying to meditate.
The natural tendency of the human mind to be continually busy has been called 'monkey mind' or 'butterfly mind' by some, both phrases reflecting the tendency of the mind to jump or flit about from one thing to another. It is normal for this to happen. When we sit to meditate we are likely to notice this more strongly than we do in everyday life and we don't have our usual distractions available so it can seem worse than usual. Most likely it is simply more clear to us at this point.
It's important to remember in our mindfuless practice always to start from where we are. This means that if we notice lots of thoughts, discomfort and a sense that things should be different then this is the experience that we try to bring a kind and gentle attention to. Our experience cannot be 'wrong'. When we are aware of our thoughts and discomforts in the moment then we are being mindful. Sometimes it doesn't feel good and we have to allow that, and do our best to look after ourselves by relating to that experience with a sense of kindness.
We soon learn that we can't fight how we feel. The more we try to stop having thoughts, or stop having certain thoughts, the stronger they become. So we aim to allow them all to be there. However, we can take steps that will help our minds to become more settled for meditation practice.
We do this by choosing our focus. While we can't deberately stop thinking, we can choose where to focus our attention. The mind can only hold so much at any one time, so if most of our attention is focused on one thing there will be less left over for other thoughts. At the beginning of a meditation practice we can therefore choose to give the mind a few things to think about. We can focus on the detail of our breathing and also use counting to make sure that the breath in is about the same length as the breath out. As most of our attention is taken up by this task, the mind naturally starts to settle. So initially we focus our concentration quite firmly on this natural rhythm of the breath and on counting as a method of reducing the natural turbulence of the mind. We don't try to block out other things that come into our mind, but we keep them in the background by continuing to redirect our attention during this early stage to breathing and to counting.
This gives us a structured way to begin our practice, and to start to practice redirecting our attention when we notice that we have started to think. We can think of the counting, and the firm focus on our breath as supports that help us as we begin to practice. With time we start to let go of these supports but they can often be helpful to return to when we feel the strong pull of thoughts and emotion in our practice.