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The Issue at Hand

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Chapter 15: Mindfulness of Thoughts

The mind, hard to control.
Flighty-alighting where it wishes
One does well to tame.
The disciplined mind brings happiness.
The mind, hard to see.
Subtle-alighting where it wishes
The sage protects.
The watched mind brings happiness. 

– Dhammapada 35-36

 

Sometimes people think the point of meditation is to stop thinking – to have a silent mind. This does happen occasionally, but it is not necessarily the point of meditation. Thoughts are an important part of life, and mindfulness practice is not supposed to be a struggle against them. We can benefit more by being friends with our thoughts than by regarding them as unfortunate distractions. In mindfulness, we are not stopping thoughts as much as overcoming any preoccupation we have with them.

However, mindfulness is not thinking about things, either. It is a non-discursive observation of our life in all its aspects. In those moments when thinking predominates, mindfulness is the clear and silent awareness that we are thinking. A piece of advice I found helpful and relaxing was when someone said, “For the purpose of meditation, nothing is particularly worth thinking about.” Thoughts can come and go as they wish, and the meditator does not need to become involved with them. We are not interested in engaging in the content of our thoughts. Mindfulness of thinking is simply recognizing that we are thinking.

In meditation, when thoughts are subtle and in the back- ground, or when random thoughts pull us away from awareness of the present, all we have to do is resume mindfulness of breathing. However, when our preoccupation with thoughts is stronger than our ability to let go of them easily, then we direct mindful- ness to being clearly aware that thinking is occurring.

Strong bouts of thinking are fueled largely by identification and preoccupation with thoughts. By clearly observing our thinking, we step outside the field of identification. Thinking will usually then soften to a calm and unobtrusive stream.

Sometimes thinking can be strong and compulsive even while we are aware of it. When this happens, one approach is to notice how such thinking affects the body, physically and energetically. It may cause pressure in the head, tension in the fore- head, tightness of the shoulders, or a buzzing as if the head were filled with thousands of bumblebees. Let your mindfulness feel the sensations of tightness, pressure, or whatever you discover. To be caught up in the story of these preoccupying thoughts is easy, but if you feel the physical sensation of thinking, then you are bringing attention to the present moment rather than the story line of the thoughts.

When a particular theme keeps reappearing in your thinking, most likely it is triggered by a strong emotion. In that case, no matter how many times you recognize a repeated thought-concern and come back to the breath, the concern is liable to keep reappearing if the associated emotion isn’t recognized. For example, people who plan a lot often find that planning thoughts arise out of apprehension. If the fear is not acknowledged, it will become a factory of new planning thoughts. So, if there is a repetitive thought pattern, see if you can discover an emotion associated with it, and then practice mindfulness of the emotion. Ground yourself in the present moment in the emotion itself. When you acknowledge the emotion, often the thoughts it engenders will cease.

Thoughts are a huge part of our lives. Many of us spend much time inhabiting the cognitive world of stories and ideas. Mindfulness practice won’t stop the thinking, but it will help pre- vent us from compulsively following thoughts that have appeared. And this in turn will help us become more balanced, so that our physical, emotional and cognitive sides all work together as a whole.

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