Lost in Thought? Instead, Mind Your Thoughts
Over the past decades of mentoring people in mindfulness practice, the most common quandary I hear from novice meditators is this: “I can’t meditate. When I sit down to meditate, my mind becomes busier than ever. I thought meditation was supposed to help you quiet your mind.”
Sound familiar? I’d guess that most people who have spent any time meditating have had the same experience. It’s very common, but it doesn’t have to be a source of frustration. The frustration comes from a couple of common misunderstandings.
First, because the tsunami of thoughts seems to happen the moment we sit down to meditate, we often mistake meditation as the cause. Actually, meditation is simply shining a light on what is happening all the time in our minds. Once we sit down and attempt to quiet our minds, we see how much thinking is going on all the time. We’ve just never sat quietly long enough to notice it.
The second misunderstanding is that meditation is about emptying our minds of all thoughts. Our minds think. That is what they do. The average human has 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts every day. Ninety-eight percent of these thoughts are the same thoughts we had yesterday. Thinking is not inherently good or bad. It just is. Sometimes thoughts can be useful, inspiring and productive. At other times, they can be repetitive, stale and unproductive.
The belief that we should banish all thoughts from our minds sets us up for frustration. So, you can disabuse yourself of that idea now. The point is not whether you are thinking or how many thoughts are arising. What’s important is how we are relating to the thoughts that will inevitably arise.
From mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield: “The mind secretes thoughts the way the salivary gland secretes saliva. It just does, and then they keep coming through—words and images and ideas and visions and memories and plans. And they create much of our world. All the roads and bridges and cities and language and medicine and clothing and timepieces and chairs and governments, and all these things that we live within, were ideas in someone’s mind. And so the mind is both creative in enormous ways, and as we can see in the world, the mind also can be destructive.”
Thinking, in itself, is not a problem. The only power our thoughts actually have is the power that we give them. The art of working with thoughts in meditation is to learn how to be aware that thinking is happening, rather than getting caught up in the stories they are telling us. When we see thinking as an energetic phenomenon rather than believing every story our minds tell us, we can begin to unhook ourselves. When we can unhook from our minds’ stories, we can begin to discern which thoughts are productive and onward leading, and which thoughts are not.
Again, from Jack Kornfield: “All the music, art, philosophy, architectural structures, etc., arose from thoughts in someone’s mind. So did bigotry and war. Our thoughts do not have inherent power. They only have power when we give them power. Mindfulness gives us a tool to see thoughts as they really are, and allows us to choose which ones to nurture and which ones to let go.”
So the point of practice is to train our awareness to notice when thinking is happening and to see thoughts for what they are—wisps of fundamentally insubstantial energy whose only power is that which we give them.
It seems like a tall order because it is. Patience is key in exploring the world of thinking. Remember that you’ve probably spent your life, up until now, living in the worlds your thoughts have created for you. It takes time to turn that speeding train around.
How to Be Mindful of Thinking
While it’s true that most of us have developed a pretty ingrained habit of living in the world of our thoughts, there are simple practices that can help us begin to explore thinking as a phenomenon. Here are a few that have helped me:
- Apply a mental note: Instead of trying to push away persistent thinking, when you notice that there’s lots of thinking happening, simply apply a light mental note to what you are experiencing. When thoughts arise, say to yourself, “thinking.” Notice if there’s an edge to the note. For example, sometimes there will be a sense of frustration or judgment underlying the note. Notice that too. Allow your noting to be as neutral as possible. There’s no need to judge thinking. Thinking is not a problem. Simply note that thinking is arising.
- Count your thoughts: Sometimes when you find yourself lost in lots of thinking, counting your thoughts can help you unhook from their stories. This is very simple. Just notice and count. Don’t be disappointed if the numbers seem high. In fact, high numbers mean you’re learning how to notice thoughts rather than getting hooked into them.
- Return to the present: One of the most common mindfulness techniques is to redirect your awareness back to the breath or the body when you notice that you’ve become lost in thought. Pay attention to what happens to the thought at the moment you turn your awareness back to your breath or body. Where does it go?
- Remember that noticing thinking is a positive sign. Every time you notice that you’re lost in thought, and you redirect your awareness to sensations of breathing or to the body, you are changing the habit of being lost and training your mind toward presence. Instead of judging yourself for having strayed, appreciate that you’ve noticed it. According to meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, awakening comes in “short moments, many times.” Each short moment of noticing is a moment of awakening.