Thought goblins and the longing for nirvana

by Øyvind Ellingsen, MD PhD

Do you remember your first meditation? The gratifying feeling of being calm, relaxed and restful. We bring it with us when we sit down to meditate – a longing for peace of mind and liberation from stress. No wonder the advertising industry uses the image of the meditating Buddha. Nirvana is not only global shorthand for inner peace and well-being; it is also the brand name of the perfect mattress. But when the longing for nirvana becomes too strong, we sometimes encounter the thought goblin…

Longing for nirvana

Who does not wish for a breather from stressful routines and incessant demands – a little everyday-life nirvana? You sit down, close your eyes and repeat the meditation sound. And then the miracle happens. The tightness in your shoulders relaxes, your breathing slows down, your thoughts flow almost imperceptibly by. After half an hour you open your eyes, take a deep breath and are – completely rested! Ready to meet the day with renewed energy. Experiences like this create an expectation that good meditation will produce a pleasant feeling. Often this is the case, but not always.

Thoughts are part of it

Recent research confirms that the natural resting state of the mind is not emptiness, but a tendency to wander – between episodes and impressions from the near and more distant past, self images, spontaneous reflections, creative impulses, daydreams and snippets of wishful thinking. In daily life, most of us hardly even notice this stream of consciousness; it passes by unnoticed in the background. But even in the absence of definitive scientific proof, it is likely that this mental activity has a function. Many believe that it is a mental digestion process. In the stream of thoughts during meditation and in night-time dreams, experiences and impulses that have not quite found their place are worked through. There are many indications that the brain needs time for recreation and reflection in order to function well under stress.

What produces peace of mind?

Acceptance is a central element in Acem Meditation and other methods with well-documented effects on stress management and health. Acem practitioners learn to repeat the meditation sound with a free mental attitude. The golden rule is to repeat the sound gently and without effort, and to allow thoughts and impressions to circulate freely, be they pleasant, neutral or unwelcome. This improves the mental digestion process, gradually releasing stress and tension, though this may take longer than a single session. By meditating in this way it is possible to achieve an inner balance even amid turmoil. Peace of mind is attained by cultivating acceptance and a free mental attitude. If we strive to achieve a particular state or to avoid uncomfortable thoughts, it becomes more difficult to relax and work through tension.

Thought goblins

 

Some times stressful thoughts arise during meditation, or we experience restlessness and bodily tension:

“I just can’t seem to relax, even when I meditate the whole half-hour. What has happened to the good feeling and the interesting thoughts? Am I just wasting my time?”

“I understand that it may take a while, because I’ve got quite a bit to handle right now. But that long?”

“Maybe I’m not doing it right? The meditation sound is pretty indistinct and keeps disappearing. I have to make sure that all of the syllables are there. That I repeat it properly. Dis-tinct-ly. DIS-TINCT-LY.”

“I feel something tightening up – in my neck and temples. Ten minutes left?!”

“Oh, I am just not doing this right. Maybe meditation doesn’t work for me?”

Doubts like these can be frustrating and demoralising. In meditation terminology, they are called metathoughts – negative evaluations of your meditation. Unnoticed, the thought goblin has snuck in. The thought goblin is an internal critic who puts a negative slant on the act of meditating, the meditator, or everything to do with meditation. And we tend to believe everything the thought goblin says. If the expectation that meditation will produce a pleasant feeling is not fulfilled, you automatically assume something is wrong. Restlessness and uneasiness do not fit with the idea of a free mental attitude, and you become a victim of a mental short circuit. The negative feeling from the stream of thoughts becomes the truth about your meditation.

Strive or give up

It isn’t easy to banish the thought goblin. The feeling that things should be different – the longing for nirvana – obstructs acceptance of the spontaneous stream of thoughts. The main challenge is not in letting thoughts and impressions flow by: with a bit of experience and guidance we get used to allowing that to happen without interference. The challenge is the feeling that accompanies the thoughts – an underlying sense that something is wrong. Though not necessarily strong or clear, these misgivings may still draw us away from the free mental attitude. “I need to do more. Repeating the meditation sound gently is not enough.”

The most common reaction to the thought goblin is to strive for a ‘better’ experience, for example by putting slightly more pressure on the meditation sound in the hope of avoiding trivial thoughts or relaxing more. Another reaction is to keep interrupting meditation for little breaks in which to follow a thought or daydream to its end before going back to the meditation sound: “Just have to wait a minute or two.” Without our noticing it, the thought goblin leads us into a backwater. And sometimes the thought goblin fools us into reducing the meditation time, skipping a session or two, or giving up meditation for a while.

Back on track

In meditation, time and guidance are good tools for dealing with thought goblins and the longing for nirvana. It is often surprising how little is needed to bring our practice onto a more satisfactory track. A somewhat longer meditation session often gives us time to get through a period of restlessness and uneasiness. Talking about meditation and its challenges with an experienced meditation guide can be very useful and help to identify areas of difficulty and frustration. This is often the first step towards greater acceptance, a freer mental attitude and enhanced benefits from meditation.

Øyvind Ellingsen, MD PhD, is Professor of Cellular Cardiology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and has been an Acem instructor since 1972 and initiator since 1980. In addition to his main specialisation, he has also published both research articles and popular presentations on meditation (including a major article in the book Fighting Stress: Reviews of Meditation Research, Oslo: Acem Publishing 2008), as well as a CD on meditation, relaxation and stress management.

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