A Buddhist Psychiatrist Explains Why Meditation Isn't About Relaxing

Plus, the mental shift that can keep your thoughts from stressing you out and hijacking your mind.

"Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: 'I wonder what my next thought is going to be.' Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole? Try it now."

Eckhart Tolle offers these meditation instructions in his book The Power of Now. His guidelines lay out in simple terms what it feels like to meditate. But still, so many people think of meditation as an opportunity to practice some breathing, count to 100 or bore themselves to death.

An ancient practice of understanding the self and recognizing the reality of life in the present moment somehow got muddled down to a boring breathing exercise in our culture. But in the below interview, Jeff Brantley, MD, a psychiatrist, Buddhist practitioner and one of the founders of Duke Integrative Medicine, addresses this common misconception, offering a unique perspective on what it means to study our own minds through mindfulness meditation.

The first time I sat down with Brantley, I was beginning my sophomore year of college and had just recently discovered meditation. About 100 questions and two hours later, I knew I’d stumbled upon a completely different way of living and being.

Our conversations prompted me to spend last summer at a Buddhist monastery, go on my first silent retreat and ultimately accrue about 250 hours of meditation. Brantley has shown me how to investigate the most complicated and subtle parts of myself and how to understand an incredibly rich practice that has taken on a new life in our modern world. In the below interview, he shares some of this wisdom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thrive Global: How would you describe mindfulness in just one sentence?

Dr. Jeff Brantley: Mindfulness is about directing attention in a particular way for a particular purpose.

TG: When you practice mindfulness, what should be going on in your mind?

JB: Mindfulness is an ability simply to notice what’s happening. And the paradox with mindfulness is that we don’t really do it. We say that as a function of our language, but really mindfulness is about being and not doing. Mindfulness really means to pay attention in a way that is simply noticing what’s here, inside the skin and outside, in a way that is not trying to fix it or change it or judge it, but simply to notice sensations, sounds, thoughts, tastes, whatever might be coming into awareness.

TG: Our culture’s interest in mindfulness has exploded in the last few decades, with everyone from psychologists to business leaders practicing mindfulness. Why do you think that is?

JB: It’s an ancient human tendency to be curious and to have this capacity to be present. But what really propelled mindfulness forward was the emerging ability to study brain and genomic activity. Instead of just doing simple psychological tests, researchers could actually observe the changing function of the brain and, in some cases, gene expression in those meditating. So there was real evidence linking the physiology, neuroscience and gene expression with meditation and attention. But at the same time, people were experiencing firsthand the benefits of being present and being mindful. One of the main motivators is the actual shift in awareness and the shift in perspective that people who practice mindfulness have experienced.

TG: What do you think most people misunderstand about mindfulness?

JB: Lots of people think being relaxed and being mindful are the same thing. The goal in mindfulness is awareness, not relaxation. People need to stop judging how aware they are by how relaxed they feel, but rather by how closely they notice what’s actually happening. If you understand that mindfulness is about letting things be as they are and making peace with the conditions of the moment, then you just rest with awareness of that.

Something else to note is that when you’re practicing mindfulness, you already have all you need. So that moment when you notice you’re sleepy or agitated, just learn to trust the noticing before you get lost in thoughts. Then you cultivate the ability to rest in that noticing more often through different methods of practice.

TG: Do you need to have a goal when you’re practicing mindfulness?

JB: I think the goal is to observe the way things are. To notice what’s here and what can be known. To put down the busyness and the activity in order to look more deeply. Another way of putting it is that the goal is to understand what it means to be human. That sounds kind of trite, but we’re understanding our humanity by sitting with it and watching it with awareness. Ask yourself, “what happens if I simply pause and systematically investigate through awareness?”

TG: When I tell people that I meditate, they often respond that they don’t do it because they’re worried they won’t be able to quiet their mind. What advice would you give them?

JB: Well, we’re not trying to quiet the mind, actually. It’s a paradox. We don’t have to make the thoughts go away. We are just seeking to notice when the thoughts are there and when they are not and what they are. But the paradox is, when we stop interfering with our thoughts by creating more thoughts, like judgments or ideas, the mind at some point will find its own way and we might actually experience moments when there’s awareness but there’s no thinking.

Then we can experience the very significant truth that we are not our thoughts. So many people have spent so much of their lives living in their thoughts that they’ve really lost connection with the experience of being in their body. So once we realize that our thoughts can be listened to without being believed, then the power of our thoughts to dominate us or misinform us or hijack us or stress us out diminishes a lot. And then we’re a lot freer from the tyranny of our own thought patterns.

TG: How can mindfulness help us avoid the stress and burnout epidemic that so many people are experiencing?

JB: People are more isolated, more distracted and more frightened by the news and everything that’s out there today. So to remember that they have a capacity to touch a part of themselves that is not disturbed, that is at ease and peaceful, to remember that and to explore that is a huge gift to the world.

TG: What advice would you give someone who’s never practiced mindfulness meditation before and wants to start today?

JB: Remember that you’re there to explore and discover. Drop all the ideas you have about yourself and about meditation and simply pay attention. You could sit in a chair and just notice your body sitting there. When you notice your mind gets impatient, rather than giving up, just notice that that’s impatience and impatient thinking. Bring your attention to here and now and simply notice. And if the mind is really busy, you could focus your attention on a sound or on the breath sensation or some sort of anchor. But really it’s about taking the position of awareness and letting the experience of being in your body and in this life and in this moment come to you, without trying to change any of it, for even five minutes.

An easy way would be to pause as you go through your day and let yourself feel your breath or hear the sounds or smell the smells. Just come back to the present moment. Notice what’s happening, even for a breath or two. It begins to take on a life of its own after a while.

TG: In your book Daily Meditations for Calming Your Anxious Mind, you say “The way of awareness thrives upon a great curiosity about what life is really about.” How do you cultivate that curiosity in your daily life?

JB: Curiosity is an energizing factor. When we get curious about something, we tend to find some energy and some interest in what we’re doing. First of all, it’s important to just value curiosity. What if we shifted at any moment and became curious about things?

What I find to be a helpful device in nurturing my curiosity in any activity or moment is to actually lay that out as an intention. I ask myself, “what if I were more curious right now?” And I’ll just think of a few questions about what’s going on that helps me pay closer attention, and then see what might be revealed about the moment. It can be the most ordinary things that can lead us to some remarkable experiences. The present moment is vast if we just start looking around.

Dr. Jeff Brantley is a psychiatrist and a mindfulness instructor. He is the author of Calming Your Anxious Mind: How mindfulness and compassion can free you from anxiety, fear, and panic and is the co-author, with Wendy Millstine, of the Five Good Minutes series. He’s meditated for 30 years with some of the world’s most well-respected meditation and Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Larry Rosenberg, Christina Feldman, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. He is also also one of the founding faculty members of Duke Integrative Medicine where he helped launch Duke’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. 

Well-Being, Advice, Mindfulness, Life Lessons, Inspiration, Meditation

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!