02/17/2013 10:13 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2013

Does Meditation Equal an Empty Mind?


Have you ever been told you need to "clear your head" or "get rid of all the clutter"?

For many, including myself, the idea of sitting quietly with an empty mind seems impossible. If fact, this idea is often a barrier to any attempts to meditate or try mindfulness exercises.

But, it's not necessary to empty your mind to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness practice has no instructions or tenets focused on clearing your mind of all thought.

Instead, the practice of mindfulness guides you in the process of choosing a focus for your attention and on simply observing your own thought processes.

What often happens when you begin to focus your attention, say on your breathing or on walking, is that you discover you are repeatedly distracted and running off with worries and thoughts.

Everyone, when they initially attempt to focus attention on just one thing, finds themselves distracted and pulled away from the exercise by their thoughts.

This process of attempting to focus attention and realizing that you are off track and lost in thought is invaluable. It is through this experience that we begin to recognize that our thoughts are just that, thoughts. At first this may seem a simple revelation, but realizing that your thoughts are not "the truth" and they are not your "inner self" can be liberating.

Once you discover that thoughts come and go in a ceaseless flow, you can make choices about how you relate to your thoughts. Which thoughts will you choose to interact with? Which thoughts will you let pass by? Which thoughts do you want to change?

Some thoughts are unimportant, some are anxious in content, some sad or angry and some help us find meaning. With the greater awareness that comes from simply knowing they are there, you can become less controlled by thoughts, such as "I'm not worth it," or "I can't stand it." You can let those thoughts pass and in letting them pass, know that you don't have to be ruled by them.

Mindfulness is not about emptying the mind or suppressing your thoughts. Can you do it? I can't. But I also don't try to. In the practice of mindfulness we focus more on observing the mind. It is not important if your mind is very busy one day or very calm another. The focus is on noticing and being aware of what is happening internally.

Mindfulness Is Doing What You're Doing

Really. It's as simple as that. And as complex. Mindfulness is not necessarily setting aside time in your busy day to meditate. It is about being present and aware during the moments in which you are living your life.

The challenge is to bring a sense of calm, centered awareness to everyday life. This includes times when you are angry, in an argument, feeling pressure, stuck in traffic, mowing the lawn, watching TV, working, talking on the phone, emptying the dishwasher, thinking about times you've been hurt, avoiding problems or eating.

Some activities don't require a lot of extra effort to bring a sense of calm and awareness. But others, such as difficult interactions and painful thoughts, are hard to be mindful of. These are the times when mindfulness in daily life can feel complex.

Try This:

Choose a routine daily activity, say, washing the dishes or making the bed. As you do the activity, ask yourself -- what you are doing? How many times have you done it? What does it take, to do this activity? What are your hands and body doing? Where is your mind and thoughts? Who is involved in this activity? Why?

Notice if you slip into automatic pilot, completing the activity while lost in thoughts about something else entirely. Bring your mind back to the physical sensations of what you are doing. Act with intention. Wash the dishes to wash them. Don't rush to finish the task, focus on being fully present as you do it.

For more by Christy Matta, M.A., click here.

For more on meditation, click here.