Why You Can’t Clear Your Mind in Meditation and You Don’t Really Want To

The other day, my good friend Talar Herculian Coursey shared a post on LinkedIn about the most common problem new meditators experience: the inability to “clear one’s mind.” In response, numerous people commented that they “couldn’t” meditate for this very reason. As I shared in my new book, I tried my best to explain that this isn’t the purpose of meditation. Nevertheless, the comments kept coming, so I am explaining here why you can’t clear your mind in meditation and you don’t really want to anyway.

When I speak about mindfulness, I often joke that this isn’t really a bad thing because it’s a surefire way to know that you are still alive. If you meditate long enough, you’ll eventually come to the realization that one of the functions of the mind is to generate thoughts. So, a thinking mind, annoying as it can sometimes be, is a healthy one.

Even so, many of us lawyers don’t have the best relationship with our minds. Some of us may view our minds as bullies who boss us around, shame us, call us names, and annoy us when we are trying to focus or sleep. When we sit to meditate, we may have grand delusions of regaining control over our lives by silencing the bully in our minds.

But if the mind is a bully–and I have had my own experience with this–does it really make sense to think more bullying is going to solve the problem? I mean, if we want our minds to be kinder and gentler to us, doesn’t it make sense instead to learn to be kinder and gentler with our minds?

After I had meditated long enough, I started to see my mind much less like a bully and more like a child. Sometimes my mind wanted to babble and play and make up nonsense songs like a baby or toddler. Sometimes it wanted to create stories and share them like an excited little kid. And sometimes it would argue for the things it wanted or call names when things didn’t go its way.

What’s the big difference here between bully and child? The difference is that I was bothered, incredibly bothered, by the bully mind, but I could let the child mind be. In a word, the difference is acceptance. At a certain point, and I can’t tell you exactly when, meditation helped me see that the mind just made thoughts and they didn’t always have to control what I did or how I felt.

Once I came to this realization, the whole dynamic changed. I could hear my mind tell me I am an awful person and a failure at life and I didn’t automatically believe it. That would empower me to challenge it with logic, console myself, or reach out for support. I could see my mind spin stories about how my plans would all come to ruin and my loved ones would reject me. And I could just reflect on the fact that my mind was spinning yarns again and redirect my attention to the present moment.

How did this magical power emerge? It came from never learning to clear my mind. I’ve been meditating for a decade. I have undertaken special training. I have not found a way to clear my mind and I don’t think there is one. My goal at this point is to convince everyone else of the same thing.

What you can learn to do, however, is to find clarity about your mind. Meditation can help you do that because (certain forms of it) require you to sit and watch your mind. Though it seems like it sometimes, this is not a cruel joke. You aren’t supposed to learn how to clear your mind. You’re supposed to see that the nature of the mind is not to be empty, but you can still find clarity in it.

Clarity comes from meditation practice because, if you don’t give up, you will eventually learn that there is no choice but to accept your mind as it is. In other words, you learn to stop fighting all the thoughts. You learn that control, the strategy that you have relied on for too many things for most of your life, is not the only way. Because what happens when you stop fighting all the thoughts? Most often, that’s when they settle down. That’s when you are likely to experience periods of clarity. That’s when you will experience what space between you and your thoughts looks and feels like, so you can more often be aware in your daily activities when your thinking mind is activated.

If you start meditating and you notice that you can’t clear your mind, perhaps consider this as something other than a pain point or a personal failure. Instead, it’s a preliminary realization that can lead to far more significant insights if you let it. Yes, you can’t clear your mind, so stop trying to clear your mind. Accept it. Accept yourself. Go back to the breath. And see what happens next.  

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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