relating to our thoughts in meditation 💭
It's a common mistake to think that the "point" of meditation is to clear your mind of thoughts. It's not.
The way the path of meditation works is that a regular practice allows us to connect to the primordial, basic goodness–the wisdom–that exists inside of all of us. Reconnecting to this wisdom is what brings the peace; not somehow wiping your mind of all thought.
Thoughts, however, are the most frequent way that the human mind distracts itself from our present moment experience. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, we are always meditating on something. And for most of us, most often, what we are meditating on (or, placing our focus on) is our thoughts. Through practice, though, we choose what to focus on instead. (Depending on the type of meditation, it might be your breath, or nothingness.)
While some experienced practitioners have moments of no-thought, the reality is that when sit in our daily practice, we're not trying for that. What we're practicing is a way to disengage from the thoughts; to observe them, and to step off their well-worn path and into a place where we can observe ourselves outside of the habit of thinking.
Thoughts are not facts; they are neurological connections firing in our brain (often in well-worn patterns) and as a mindfully conscious human, we can chose to observe and relate to them instead of identifying with them.
There is a trope of a meditator sitting down in a meditation cushion, closing their eyes, taking a deep breath, and clearing their mind of thoughts. I mean, okay. Cool if that happens. But . . .
. . . what if shutting your eyes and paying paying closer attention seems to have the opposite effect? What if you sit to meditate and you notice just how active your mind is? (For a lot of people, when they start meditating, it can seem like their mind is suddenly more active. It’s not, but it’s easy to see why it seems that way when we suddenly notice the discursive monkey mind. 🌀🙉🌀 It’s kind of like when you decide to sit in silence and you suddenly notice how incredibly loud silence is–e.g., did my fridge always sound like a jet engine?!)
Your mind might think, “You are a mean person and everything is your fault.” But this is objectively not true–this is ego-thinking, this is a thought pattern. Thinking something does not make it true. It just means you had a thought. Once again for those in the back: thinking something does not make it true.
So here’s the thing: your thoughts are not you. They are yours, yes. Thoughts happen based on your environment, your experiences, your beliefs, and because the human brain is delightfully (and sometimes maddeningly) efficient; thoughts are especially likely to be repeats of past thoughts. That’s just how the biology of the human brain works.
So how do we relate to thoughts in meditation? We may relate to their qualities, we may relate to their content, or we may relate to their physicality. We notice these things, and then we let them go; we drop the thoughts and let them keep moving on.
Here are some ways to relate to our thoughts in meditation:
thoughts as weather :: We experience weather, but we are not the weather. We may relate to our thoughts as having the qualities of weather; as we watch our thoughts we may see that they are electric and stormy, calm yet ominous, sunny and breezy, or have a million other qualities. Like our thoughts, the weather is always changing–and also like the weather, we can often sense an imminent change in the qualities of our thoughts. In this practice method, we are able to see the characteristics of our thoughts, but we don’t get caught up in the subject matter of the thoughts themselves. Much like we can watch the clouds go by, we can observe our thoughts as they move through us. Notice the weather of our thoughts, and let it go. Let the weather change.
thoughts as noises :: Another way to relate to the characteristics of our thoughts is to treat them as noise. Like noise, thoughts may be in the background or the foreground of our experience; they may be soft or loud; they may hiss, whistle, or land with a thud. Noises can be a distant knocking, a slight fluttering of a leaf in the breeze, or be an ear-splitting explosion. When we relate to our thoughts as noises, we can notice their qualities without narrating them. Think of this practice like listening to acoustic music: there are qualities to a song that change as it progresses, and we can notice the composition and characteristics without the need for lyrics. Music is complete without words, just as it is enough to relate to the complexity of your thoughts without the need to explore the narrative. In this practice, we notice the traits of our thoughts, and let them go. Let the song keep playing.
your mind as a body of water :: Your thoughts may be like a stream moving past you as you sit on the shore. Or, your thoughts may be a still body of water occasionally agitated by small ripples on the surface. Or, perhaps your thoughts are an ocean, with thoughts acting as tides, currents, swells, and waves. Choose the metaphor that best suits you, and use that way of relating to your thoughts (although be sure to stick with one way of relating; see below for why.) When our minds are the constant, the water, we know that we will always be wet. Our own essence doesn’t change–but thoughts may effect whether we’re a placid lake or a thundering shoreline. That’s fine. We’re still water. So, we’re just noticing how the thoughts are affecting us without trying to change them, or to change our principle nature. Using this practice, we can notice the effects of our thoughts without changing our essence.
labeling the type of thoughts :: Sometimes it can be helpful to engage with the actual content of our thoughts; to notice and label the subject matter. This practice can be an excellent way to better understand and learn to work with our own thought patterns. (My own personal experience with this practice has been that I have been shocked by how many of thoughts are about beating myself up. I would never be so mean to someone else; yet hoo boy can I be cruel to myself. Knowing this has given be great opportunity for change.) It is by noticing and labeling our thoughts that we can better understand our personal patterns and stories. Imagine a filing cabinet where you put each thought, according to its content. When you notice a thought, notice the subject and file it into the right drawer; then let it go. Over time, you will become very familiar with your own brain’s tendencies and patterns, which is the first step to working with them. When you notice a thought, label it, file it, and let it go.
thoughts as a somatic experience :: Yes, we are working with our minds in meditation, but because we are physical beings, meditation (like every thing in life) is a visceral, felt experience. Thoughts cause physical feelings. For instance, when I think about my lengthy to-do list, I feel a tightness in my chest and a quickening of my heart rate. When I think about someone I love, my breathing deepens and my muscles relax. This again, can be abstract and quality-focused as well: when I think about that thing I said yesterday, I feel warm and twitchy. Or I might feel stiff, or prickly. When we find ourselves particularly resistant to meditation–when our thoughts feel like they are controlling us–is a great time to focus on the somatic, felt experience of thinking. Just be sure that after you notice the feelings, you are also practicing the letting go.
When we notice our thoughts, we are in the exact moment of mindfulness. Often when I teach meditation, at the end of our sit, I ask people to raise their hands if they had even one moment of thinking to themselves, “Oh crap, I am supposed to be meditating.” That, my friends, is the practice of mindfulness–when you noticed you were thinking. That isn’t doing it wrong, that is doing it right! So, cool, you were thinking. You had a thought. You related to it. And now you are dropping it and going back to the intended focus of your practice (such as your breath.)
Please keep in mind, meditation is not about entertainment. The mind tends to seek entertainment (it’s an ego thing), so if you find yourself wanting to try relating to your thoughts as noises and then weather and then ripples–or focusing on, say, the color of your mental filing cabinet–you are probably crossing over into entertaining yourself. Let that go.
And when you are letting go, always remember that the most important thing, at any time, is to be gentle with yourself. We don’t admonish ourselves for thinking. We love ourselves for being alive.
Once you’ve found a way of relating to your thoughts that works for you, stick with it. The practice of meditation is placing the focus of your mind back to where you want it to be–over and over and over again. That’s how we create the new neural pathways that can lead us to become more calm, less reactive, and more at peace. That moment, of dropping your thoughts, and refocusing on what you choose to make the object of your practice, is the practice.
That moment, of dropping your thoughts, and refocusing on what you choose to make the object of your practice, is the practice.
So remember: thoughts are real things, they are not imaginary. But they are not us. We have a conscious choice about whether or not we chose to identify with our thoughts, or whether we are choosing instead to notice them and let them go. And, importantly, we also have the ability to effect which thoughts, over time, are the most prevalent. The brain is a physical organ, one which can be intentionally changed through repeated practice. Meditation, when practiced regularly, can be that practice.
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