Meditation can be summed up in one directive: just come back.
When we first learn to follow the breath, the instruction is simple:
- Pay attention to the sensations of the breath.
- When you get lost or distracted, just come back.
People naturally tend to judge their success by the amount of time they can consistently follow the breath.
Staying with the breath seems like a win, and too often the instruction to “come back” is seen as a mere stepping stone back to the real work of meditation.
But to return to ourselves—to centre—is the essence of mindfulness and the key to its transformative power.
When we are pulled away by distractions & worries, it takes a certain kind of intelligence to be able to see thought as thought and to return to your real-time experience.
It means that we have some understanding of the nature of thought: that it is a voice, an opinion, and not fact.
We are perhaps beginning to understand that listening is optional. Just like you don’t have to listen to everything other people tell you, neither do you need to believe each of your own thoughts.
Your thoughts are your constant companions and it takes a leap of faith to hear them and continue anyway.
To just come back each time re-enforces that thoughts are merely temporary. Not meaningless, but fleeting. Not a conclusion, but a conversation.
To just come back means that we trust in our centre. Each thought leads away from that centre, pointing us in this direction and that, implying that it is the most important thing going down in the Universe right now.
Coming back familiarises us with something that does not change: our basic awareness. It roots us in something deeper and more dependable.
Familiarity with this awareness gives us space for all of our experiences to arise and subside: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Emotional maturity is not when certain emotions stop arising. You rarely get a say in what emotion you will experience. It is instead a working relationship with the mental space that allows positive and negative emotions to flourish and burn up, without getting locked into a particular narrative around them.
It is the courage to feel the savageness of anger or the gut-churning intensity of jealousy, and to still be ok with not being ok. The much cooler term for this in meditation circles is equanimity.
To just come back cultivates deep patience. Whether the mind is in a peaceful state or a spiralling into a category five shitstorm, the ability to return is a stepping beyond and saying: Ok. What else? I allow and accept, but that is not the whole story of me.
To simply focus on the return means that we are cultivating trust in our innate intelligence. We are not trying to direct or mould experience in a certain way. We are simply turning attention towards itself, and letting the alchemy take place.
However, it’s worth pausing to reflect: do you ever choose to come back? It may seem like you’re working hard to stay mindful, but if you pay close attention, you’ll see something slightly more mysterious.
You only notice when you are not present. You never choose to come back. It is the recognition that you are not here which brings you back.
And so the simple instruction to “just return” begins to teach us about the unconditional nature of presence. You don’t create it or maintain it. You can only notice when you’re not cognizant of it. And then it swallows you back up.
There is no failure when it comes to mindfulness. You can’t go wrong. Each time we come back, we are recognising that our capacity for self-compassion is unlimited.
Each time we come back, we are practising a small forgiveness. Not the kind that just looks good in public, but a genuine movement of care towards yourself.
It doesn’t matter whether you’ve spent the last 10 minutes embroiled in a mental battle… you came back.
You are here. You have options.