One of the things you realize when you first start meditating is that your mind does its own thing, without your permission. Despite your best efforts to focus on one thing, thoughts and images fly into the frame out of nowhere. This is called mental agitation, mental scattering, excitation, distraction… you get the picture.
This happens to everyone, so don’t fret. And know that with steady practice, you can calm your monkey mind. Let’s learn the coarse and subtle forms of agitation and how to deal with them.
You experience coarse agitation when your object of focus completely disappears from your mind. You’re holding your object one moment, and then before you know it, you’re thinking about what you need to buy at the grocery store. The original object is lost completely.
Like subtle dullness, this is a problem of more advanced meditators. Here, you’re still focused on you meditation object, but there’s a slight movement of thought from a different part of the mind. It’s like you’re staring at the object but there’s a bit of movement in your peripheral vision that you’re aware of.
This kind of subtle agitation is described in scriptures like water flowing beneath a layer of ice.
Just as with mental dullness, you first need to catch yourself slipping into agitation. Every once in a while during your meditation, you should check on the quality of your meditation. This is called vigilance.
Then, depending on what type of agitation you’re experiencing, apply the following antidotes.
Once you've caught that you've gone off the object, gently return to the object. Some people find that labeling the distracting thought helps put it to rest. For example, as soon as you catch yourself fantasizing about something in the future, think, "fantasizing," and then return to your original object. If you're going into memories, think "memories," and return. This technique can help us get some distance from our thoughts instead of being so identified with them.
Slowing and deepening the breath will also help to calm your mind.
If your agitation is so bad that you need further action, do one or both of the following, in either order:
1. Focus on your body and breathing.
Temporarily suspend your original meditation object and tune into your body. Deepen and slow your breathing, and completely relax the areas where you hold tension, like the sides of your mouth and your forehead (while staying in your meditation position). Feel the relaxation and pleasure in simply sitting in silence, breathing. Focus on long, slow breaths, letting your worries or excitement go with your exhale.
Extend your exhales and don’t worry about your inhale. Exhales have a stronger calming effect than inhales.
2. Contemplate the suffering in life.
Have you ever been obsessing over some small thing and then heard tragic news? That news puts an end to your obsessing. Suddenly you’re thinking about deeper things, like how tragedy can strike anyone at any moment. Your mind has a totally different quality and mood than when you were obsessing, right?
In the same way, you can treat your agitation by contemplating the suffering in world. Think about someone in your life who is experiencing a lot of pain. Or contemplate impermanence, acknowledging that someone you love could be taken from you today. You could even go so far as to imagine what will one day be true—the body you have now will be lifeless.
This is not pessimistic, it’s just reality. And you will find that the calm mind you experience when in touch with that reality is more peaceful than the frantic mind that’s out of touch with that reality.
Once your mind is settled—and genuine contemplation on impermanence and suffering will settle your mind—gently return to your original meditation object.
Subtle agitation occurs when you hold the meditation object too tightly. So relax your grip on the object slightly. Recognize that you’re trying too hard and open up a little bit (but not so much that you lose the object).
The agitation you’re experiencing here is subtle and so the antidote is quite subtle—a small loosening on your grip of the object.