Our last article discussed one of the most common myths in meditation: That meditation requires you to stop thinking. In my experience, this misconception is the #1 reason why people believe they “can’t meditate.”
That article also discussed why the project to stop thinking is both (borderline) impossible, and not very helpful. This time, we’ll be asking: How should we work with thoughts in meditation?
How to Work With Thoughts in Meditation
Of course, we all know the dark side of thoughts as well. Meditation exists largely to help us deal with painful, neurotic, obsessive, and egoistic thoughts and emotions. The question is how to do it.
Letting Thoughts Happen Naturally
This is the beginning of making friends with thinking, because it’s no longer seen as a threat.
If we’ve been trying to stop thinking, the first step is to understand that thinking itself isn’t the problem—just our habits around it.
A very sensible approach to thoughts in meditation, which is also the approach I’ve been taught, is just to let them happen as a natural process.
In other words, don’t try to “do” anything with thoughts, but just let them come and go. Don’t take stances: just let each thought—kind or cruel, happy, sad, or freaked-out—simply come up and dissolve.
This is the beginning of making friends with thought, because it’s no longer seen as a threat.
Meditation does need to teach us mental stability: how to have a rich thinking and feeling life without getting dragged around by our thoughts and emotions.
It’s also true that thoughts can sometimes bulldog our awareness around. For example, we might become so fascinated dreaming up witty things to say on an upcoming date that we completely lose track of time. If you’ve ever driven twenty miles on the interstate without remembering any of it—or done the same thing through a thirty-minute meditation session—then you’ve felt the odd, faintly embarrassing sensation of being trapped in daydreams.
Thoughts can also overwhelm us with emotional charge. For example, we might become so angry at a remembered insult that we snap at a friend: the insult was nothing more than a memory (a thought), but the emotional weight it carried proved too much to handle.
So meditation does need to teach us mental stability: how to have a rich thinking and feeling life without getting dragged around by our thoughts and emotions. How can we learn this without turning thoughts themselves into the enemy?
In the mindfulness meditation I practice, the process of learning mental stability is also very gentle. You simply pay ongoing attention to (or “maintain mindfulness of”) something occurring in your awareness, most commonly the breathing. From time to time you’ll daydream, carried away by thought and emotions. When you notice you’ve been daydreaming, you come back, very simply, to the thing you’ve been paying attention to (the object of mindfulness). You can also make a simple mental acknowledgement of the daydreaming process, for example by mentally saying the word “Thinking.”
This is starting to get technical, and I believe there are a number of valid meditation traditions that I know little about, so I’ll summarize the overall point:
Meditation is about making friends with thinking, and about developing a stable, relaxed approach to thoughts and emotions. It is not about stopping thinking.
Thanks for reading! How do you work with thoughts in meditation, and does a friendlier approach to thinking shift the idea that you can’t do it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!