When I first started meditating consistently, it took a few good weeks before things finally clicked. When it did, I started to see the world around me differently: that there's a distinction between the objective neutral world and the everyday subjective one coloured by my own thoughts and emotions.

In other words, meditation showed me that we have the power to choose what emotions and thoughts we react to if we're willing to pause and see them from a distance. This in turn can lead to a better understanding of negative feelings like anxiety, sadness, and anger. It also helps with creativity: in reconnecting with my emotions, I've found greater clarity in what I want to express through my art.

In this article, I’ll go through three visual metaphors that have helped me personally grasp this concept and practice. At its core, meditation is the act of sitting quietly to become mindful of everything going on inside and around you.

While there are different types of meditations, this article will focus on the base mindfulness practice using three visual metaphors:

  1. The sky as consciousness
  2. A muddy glass of water
  3. Kite flying

1. The sky as consciousness

This is a classic visual metaphor. You can think of the sky as your consciousness and the clouds as your thoughts. Look at the image above closely. Notice how the clouds are obstructing the sky. Most days, we’re caught up in our thoughts, our ego. There's a constant chatter in our head of the things we need to do and desire to do. We’re stuck in the clouds.

But when we pause and zoom out, we can see that the sky is vast and infinite:

This represents our consciousness. Moreover, our consciousness holds more than just our thoughts. It’s the vast infinite space in which our other senses inhabit and process information: the things we hear, what we see, what we feel, and so on.

With meditation, you can choose to divert your attention from your thoughts to the sky itself. You’re choosing to take a step back, and become the sky. You’re watching your thoughts float by— without judgement—observing them from a distance. And much like clouds, thoughts come and go. It's good to remember that all emotions and thoughts inevitably have an end. E.g. You might be mad at something, but that moment will eventually come to pass; it's impossible to stay mad 100% of the time.

Meditation practice involves focusing on the breath as a way to keep the mind occupied and divert attention away from the stream of everyday thoughts. And when done correctly, you reconnect with the present moment. A present moment that’s no longer fogged up by the clouds of your thoughts.

An analogy to what that feels like is akin to waking up from a dream in which you were heavily invested in. You’ve probably felt this: You’re dreaming about studying for an exam or running away from danger. But then you wake up and feel relief that it was all fiction. You mistook the stakes of that dream for reality. Mindfulness practice is similar in that you're hitting pause on your thoughts to  re-assess their truthfulness.

2. A muddy glass of water

One of the most common complaints I hear from friends trying to meditate is: “I can’t just sit silently. I think too much.”

This is totally normal and expected. It takes time, practice, and patience to get over this hump. The visual metaphor here is a glass of water containing mud and dirt. The more you agitate it (i.e. the more you think), the longer the water will stay muddy. But if you let it sit undisturbed long enough, the dirt begins to settle to the bottom of the glass. The water regains its clarity again at the top.

With meditation, we use the breath as a way to focus our attention and not get engrossed in our thoughts. A good tip my cousin once taught me is to simply say the word “thought” in your head as soon as you recognize a thought being formed to acknowledge it and become aware of the act of thinking. Once you point it out, you can then gently go back to focusing on the breath. It takes practice, but eventually, you’ll see your thoughts begin to settle and hear a calm silence in your head. It isn't necessarily the absence of thoughts, but a distance from them.

3. Kite flying

The last metaphor is related to the last two. Often times, I’ll picture myself flying a kite when I’m meditating: I’m looking up at the kite, with the line in my hand. My focus is on my breathing. And when I start getting distracted and think too much, it’s as though strong winds are trying to knock the kite off its steady axis. When I start seeing these winds, I quietly say the word “thought” to myself to recognize and acknowledge the thoughts, and gently tug the kite back into its upright position in the sky.

In closing

Contrary to popular belief for those that have never practiced, meditation doesn't necessarily have to lead to deep epiphanies or transcendental visions. If you’re going in expecting life-changing epiphanies every time, you’re inevitably setting yourself up for disappointment.

Another way to look at meditation is comparing it to everyday tasks like taking a shower or brushing your teeth. You do these mundane tasks (or at least I hope you do) because they’re good for your body. Meditation doesn’t need to be put on a pedestal. It doesn’t have to be intimidating. You’re simply pausing for a few moments to give your mind a repose from overthinking and reconnect with the present world around you so that you don't miss it.



For diving deeper, I recommend:

Waking Up App by Sam Harris

This is a great app. It has an introductory course as well as lectures on various mindfulness topics. It’s a paid app, but there’s an option to download it for free if you simply email the company. I’ve tried other apps like Headspace, and Waking Up is my favorite because unlike other apps, its main mission is to actually educate, and not necessarily to make a profit or build an addictive product.

Audio Dharma Podcast from the Insight Meditation Center

Great insightful 12-minute talks as well as longer guided meditation sessions. I particularly enjoy Gil Fronsdal’s talks. They’re always insightful and full of useful metaphors. I’ll play an episode in the morning while I’m preparing breakfast and getting ready.

Everywhere You Go, There You Are (Book) by Jon Kabat-Zinn

A great introductory book to meditation full of beautiful prose.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying - Sogyal Rinpoche

This is a dense book and deals with heavy themes like dealing with death (being there for others that are dying and preparing for your own inevitable death). The book approaches things from a Buddhist perspective, so it may not be for everyone. Further, the author has been disgraced after revelations from his troubled history. That being said, the book itself was influential in introducing meditation to the Western world.