How to do active meditation

A basic tenet of many Eastern philosophies is that worrying about the future and thinking about the past causes internal unrest. There is anxiety around the future and many regrets and frustrations about the past. By staying only in the present moment these disruptive thoughts can be minimized. But how do you accomplish it?

We know from a 1987 paper, Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression, (1) by Dr. Wegner out of Harvard, that the more you try not to think about something the more you will think about it. The paper has been nicknamed, “White Bears.” This not news to any of us. But he also demonstrated that there was a trampoline effect, in that you think about it a lot more. When you frame this discussion in terms of neurological pathways instead of psychology this phenomenon becomes a huge problem. Disruptive thoughts progress with age.

How to do active meditation

You are not your thoughts

You are not your thoughts. Skilled meditators are able to connect deeply with the environment and detach from their thoughts. I tried this technique for years and could not achieve a high enough level of skill to calm me down; then I discovered “active meditation”. For those of you that are in the mindfulness world this is not a new concept. However, re-framing these tools in these terms has been helpful for me. Here is the conversation I have with my patients on a daily basis.

The conversation

“You cannot control your mind with your mind. When your mind is racing your body will be tense and tight. Different organ systems will respond in their own specific way. The harder you try to force yourself to calm down, the faster your brain will spin.

One of the foundational concepts of treating Neurophysiological Disorder (NPD) is that neurological pathways are deeply imbedded, including anxiety and pain. As you cannot fix or repair them one alternative is to shift off of them and on to more functional and enjoyable circuits. Placing your attention on sensory input from your environment can quickly and easily do this. Any sense works – sound, smell, taste, feel, pressure, sight, etc.”

There are three steps that are from Eastern philosophy.

  • Relaxation
  • Stabilization
  • Focusing on a sensation

I learned them at a meditation retreat given by Alan Wallace, a prominent researcher in integrating Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science.

Active mediation in clinic

I practice this daily while on the run, including performing surgery. If I am a little wound up during clinic, I will do it with my patients. We all sit back in our chairs, let our shoulders sag and jaws relax. We take a deep breath and let it go. (Relaxation). We then let ourselves stay relaxed for 5-10 seconds (stabilization), while I have them listen to the ventilation system. Then we shift our attention to people’s voices outside the door, to our feet on the floor, and back to the vent. It all takes about a minute. Invariably everyone in the room feels more relaxed. I can hear my voice change to a lower pitch. We have now shifted our attention off of our racing thoughts to the current moment through sensory awareness. It is an exercise that I encourage them to do often. Eventually, it becomes almost automatic.

The past is the past

You cannot change the past. Your thoughts will become more disruptive the harder you analyze and try to fix it. You also cannot fix yourself. However, you can shift your attention to the sensory input that is immediately in front of you. That is it and it is that simple. Unhooking from the Train

How to do active meditation


Another rendition of this tool is listening; I mean really listening in a way that you can visualize the other person’s perspective and realizing that the words they are saying to you mean something different to them than they do to you. It is remarkable how much more interesting the world is when you quit continually trying to impose your perspective on to it.

There are three steps in reprogramming your nervous system: awareness, detachment, and reprogramming. The simple writing exercise of writing down your negative thoughts and ripping them up accomplishes the awareness and detachment. The space between your thoughts on paper and you are now associated with vision and feel. Active mediation is a foundational reprograming tool.

Let the past go. It is over and done. You have been treated badly by many parties. You cannot take it personally. Let your attention settle on what is right in front of you. You have a precious gift of life. You might as well begin to enjoy it.

Here’s how they work and why they are so beneficial

Let’s start with meditation.

Meditation is a way of altering our state of mind and mood so we can become more tranquil and centered in the core strengths of our inner life. By exercising our attention and attitude with easy steps, a more tranquil and detached state of awareness can be achieved for both the body and mind.

One of the first phases of mediation is to gently redirect our thoughts to become more aware of the peaceful quietness that already exists within us. The initial use of meditation is ideal for those who seek a haven of peacefulness to rest and recover from the tensions in our outer life. This inner meditative state is also a place for healing mental and emotional disturbances as we release anxieties, disappointments, and irritations into this peaceful state.

Resting our attention in these inner states of awareness as a regular exercise is an effective way to help us cope with the stress of our daily activities and build greater confidence.

Benefits of a regular meditation practice

  • Stay Calm: Be more effective in pressure situations like exams & sports.
  • Creative Thinking: More original and innovative thinking and problem solving.
  • Excellent Memory: Retain new information and recall stored information better.

Mindfulness: an essential aspect of effective meditation

Mindfulness is a state of awareness that allows us to make sense of what is happening to us. Many people find that life seems to come at them so fast that they only have time for replaying their habitual response to these events. Mindfulness is a practice of becoming detached from our usual state of mind and mood so we can review our choices of response.

In our ordinary waking state, our automatic habits and reactions tend to dominate. While this frame of mind is essential most of the time, we also need to review what we are doing and whether some improvements would be useful. This self-examination requires us to step outside our usual involvement in the world of sensations and action to become the thoughtful observer of our life.

Mindfulness is a way of using a detached perspective to evaluate our own behavior and attitudes to detect where we waste time, fail to serve our bests interests, or allow petty feelings to escape our control and undermine our mature intentions and abilities.

How to do active meditation

Mindfulness in Active Meditation

Mindfulness is used in all of the exercises and meditations in Active Meditation. In this manner, mindfulness provides these benefits:

  1. It leads to a more expanded frame of mind that is detached from our usual attitudes, beliefs, and mindset. This allows the meditative practices to bring up new and more insightful ways to view old problems and current distress. Mindfulness can help us find a broader and more complete view of our issues and problems, helping us to discover what we may have missed in our previous analysis. This can lead to revising our previous judgments about where we assume we are limited or stuck in continual frustration.
  2. When mindfulness is combined with the active meditations, it becomes possible to mobilize the support of our Higher Self to supply the healing force of compassion, hopes, and courage. These qualities can add substance to the new perspectives and healing possibilities we have perceived.
  3. Mindfulness in Active Meditation can assist us in recognizing and removing our blind spots where we assume we are helpless to do more to cope with ongoing distress. The more expanded view of ourselves that occurs in mindfulness permits us to see how we can sabotage our well-being by unwarranted pessimisms or fears.
  4. Mindfulness in Active Meditation allows us to recognize and correct the many limiting beliefs we formed when we were naïve and inexperienced. These are beliefs such as being inadequate and unworthy. These assumed weakness are often accepted as permanent even after we have grown well beyond the time when they seem valid.

The extraordinary benefits of mindfulness are incorporated into every Active Meditation exercise. Mindfulness is used to expand our perspective and detach from our current mindset and beliefs. This opens us to experiencing a more comprehensive and insightful view of our current situation. When this is combined with the Active Meditation exercises it becomes possible to add the support and influence of our Higher Self.

Here is a great video that explains some of the excellent benefits of mindfulness meditation:

How to do active meditation

Our over active mind seems as if it is our normal state-of-being. It isn’t. It is learned, re-enforced, and rewarded from early age onward. It’s a mental habit. We cannot imagine getting through daily life and work without ceaseless mind talk – without creating lists and crossing things off, planning the future, ruminating over the past, tying down loose ends, and warding off non-existent problems.

However incredible it may seem, our normal state-of-being is actually calm, alert, and grounded in the moment. But, we have forgotten who we are. We have lost touch with the natural essence of our mind. Yet, it is possible for each of us to reclaim a calm mind, or better said to re-access our natural state of calmness. Here are 7-steps that broadly outline the path to a more peaceful, balanced, and effective state-of-well-being

1. Awareness
There is an ancient story about a businessman who visits a teacher for guidance in calming his mind. The teacher offers a cup of tea and then begins to pour it. As the tea flows over the top of the cup the stunned merchant asks the teacher “Why are you still pouring the tea?” The teacher replies: “Your mind is like this overflowing cup. There is no more room for anything else.”

The first step in working with the overactive mind is to become aware of it. When your mind is “filled up” it is difficult to notice how abnormal and dysfunctional it is. But, you must know what is wrong before you can fix it. You must be aware of your mind, witness your mind, before you can change it. Even more, in the case of an over active mind, you must not only be aware of it, but disgusted and fed-up before you will be moved to do something about it.

Try the following. Take a deep breath, exhale, and hold your breath at the peak of the following inspiration. Your mind will slow and still. Repeat this several times. In the opening of a suspended breath become aware of your over active mind. Consider how you are squandering the potential of the natural capacities of your mind and life?

2. Intention
The overactive mind is quite seductive. In many ways it is like an adrenaline-like drug. We get “hooked” on it. What would happen if we slowed down? What would become of our work, efficiency, and output? Would our life and work fall apart? Dare we attempt to change this familiar friend? With insight mixed with disgust we can develop a firm intention, grounded in a deep knowing that there is more to life. That firm intention will lead to actions that can progressively reverse the overactive mind.

There are two basic steps in overcoming the overactive mind. The first is progressively creating an outer ecology that supports a still, clear, and efficient mind. If we look carefully we will notice many sources of unnecessary noise and stimulation in our day-to-day environment. To name a few: unnecessary “entertainment,” meaningless conversations, and a compulsive relationship to our electronic devices. Much as we would create the proper conditions for a plant to grow, inner stability requires us to cultivate the correct outer conditions.

The second step is working on the inside. We must learn how to calm our mind and develop inner stillness. This requires effort. That effort is meditation, learning knowing how to practice inner stillness in both a regular daily sitting practice and in the midst of daily life. There are many ways to meditate, but few that will teach you the correct understanding and practice that leads to a stable and calm mind.

4. Correct Meditation

Learning how to meditate is a skill. Like any other skill it must be learned and cultivated over extended periods of time with precise instructions and proper techniques. Meditation is not just closing your eyes and calming down. That will lead to temporary relaxation, not a sustained change in your mind style. We are not looking to relax our mind, but rather, to transform it.

Meditation is a 3-stage progressive process of gaining an understanding of the workings of the mind and re-establishing its natural warmth and stillness. But there is more. We know how to be frenetic inside and frenetic outside. We know how to become relaxed inside and dull outside – a massage or long vacation are examples. But an authentic and correct practice teaches you how to maintain an inner calm while working effectively in a complex world – calm inside and complex outside. Some may say this is a “miracle.”

5. Integrating the Meditative Mind into Daily Life

There is no value in merely getting calm while meditating and reactive and hyperactive as soon as we re-enter daily life. That’s not the point here. The point is to remain calm inside while being fully active outside. We accomplish this in two ways. First, by engaging in a regular meditation practice that progressively stabilizes the mind. In this way we strengthen the mind’s stability.

Second, we simultaneously weave the meditative mind into our daily practice. Examples here include: mindful listening, mindful speaking, mindful activity, cultivating a loving heart toward all, progressively viewing work as a healing practice. Of course, these efforts require instruction and practice as well. But they extend our effort from the “cushion” to day-to-day life. Our life becomes our practice – calm inside, complex outside.

6. Teachers, Mentors, and Support

You cannot do it by yourself anymore than you can learn any other skill by yourself. Find the best teacher that you can. And, if possible, practice and learn in community.

7. When You Fall Down Get Up

We are all human. When infants learning to walk they invariably fall down. When they fall they do not engage in a mental commentary of shame, doubt, and failure. They just get up and start again. It is the same when practicing. When we fall off of practice, we get up and start once again. So if you are starting, great. If you have started and fallen off, dust your self off and start again.

Your life can flourish. Your mind can be an instrument of great good, great peace, and great happiness. Examine what you are doing with your life. Don’t squander your precious opportunities.

How to do active meditation

Worrying is meditating on what we don’t want to happen.
Inspired active meditation is meditating on what we want to happen and embody.

Have you tried meditation just to find yourself overthinking and worrying about what needs to be done or worrying about not being able to meditate? Or, do you have a meditation approach that requires observation or focus, and neither is happening? You’re not alone. As a reformed worrier, I know how that feels.

Passive and Active Meditations
In my studies as a yoga teacher, yoga therapist, and minister of holistic theology I learned passive and active forms of meditations. Broadly speaking, passive meditation refers to observing the thought process, feeling, or breath without judgement. Active meditation is an advanced form of meditation where we inquire about a particular subject. Traditional inquiry-based meditations include Self-inquiry, inquiry into the Absolute, and inquiry into the origin of Prana. It’s clear that to inquire on such subtle subjects one needs a focused mind. As a devoted meditator who wanted to experience active meditation and as someone who appreciates the gifts of journaling, I put the practices of journaling and of active inquiry meditation together. In addition, I began my inquiries by choosing points of focus that felt more tangible. Gradually I developed the attention to experience this approach to meditation and I am happy to share that this inspiring approach to active meditation is accessible and integrative.

Inspired Active Meditation 101
Step One – Point of Focus: We choose a feeling we want to embody.
Step Two – Write It Out: We journal about the point of focus.
Step Three – Reflect: We contemplate, envision and embody the point of focus.

Step One – Point of Focus
Choose a positive feeling or quality you want to embody. For example, you could choose confidence, courage, or communicative, to start. The options are endless. Simply pick something that inspires you.

Step Two – Write It Out
In your journal, date your entry and write everything that comes to mind about the feeling or quality you want to embody. Define the word, its feeling, and its value.

Here is a list of journaling questions you could ask yourself. We will use confidence as an example:

  • How do I define confidence?
  • How do I behave when I am confident?
  • What are the benefits of moving through life with confidence?
  • How does confidence feel?
  • What are things I can do to feed my confidence?

Develop an affirmation that supports the embodiment of the feeling you are seeking. For example, confidence is my true nature or I am confident. Choose something simple, direct, and positive.

The more we journal, the more the questions and answers reveal themselves.

Step Three – Reflect
Find a comfortable meditation seat. Close your eyes and reflect on what you wrote. Contemplate confidence as you did in your journal. Repeat your affirmation and see yourself embodying the feeling. Once you have the feeling of confidence, focus on the feeling, and if you lose the feeling, go back to the reflection or affirmation. If you start thinking about something else, say, “Thank you for sharing,” and go back to the contemplation of confidence. Envision yourself moving through your day feeling confident.

Required Time
I recommend spending a little longer in meditation than you do journaling. If you’re new to meditation and journaling and feel overwhelmed with your to-do list, journal for three minutes and meditate for four minutes. If you have more time and experience, journal for seven minutes and meditate for eleven minutes.

How Often?
We can journal and meditate on the same topic for as long as we like. I am intuitive. I pick a focus and when it’s time to move on, I feel it. If you prefer guidelines, choose one point of focus for seven days before switching or before choosing to spend another seven days with the same focus. The more we write and reflect the more we embody the feeling which means the reflection of choice becomes an expression of a direct experience instead of a concept and that is a very inspiring experience.

In Due Time
As we develop our attention we can gradually inquire into more subtle things such as the five elements, the nature of the mind and eventually the Self, Prana or the Absolute.

With active meditation, we can get lost in concepts. To avoid this we allow moments of passive meditation where we observe the feeling.

With practice we become more conscious of the thought process, and if we fall prey to unnecessary worrying we develop the habit to go back to the reflection and feeling we want to embody. This reflection can be done while in line at the grocery store, in the shower, and walking to a destination. Anytime we are aware of the thought process leading us into the unnecessary worrisome pattern, we switch the focus.

The Time is Now
If you’re still with me, chances are this approach to meditation is a good fit for you. So, I invite you to start today. Try it for seven consecutive days and see what happens.

Wishing you inspired active meditation experiences!