DE-MAGNETIZING THOUGHTS: Mindfulness of Thinking
by Philip L. Jones
Thinking is a wonderful tool. The ability to think has allowed us to develop marvelous civilizations with great art and amazing technologies and material comforts. But when we forget that it is just a tool, thinking can become a real problem for us. We get caught up in stories that we tell ourselves. Stories about who we are, how we aren't good enough and how we need more of this or that to make us OK. Stories that reinforce our sense of dissatisfaction and unease. Or we get caught in stories about why it is someone else's fault that our lives are a particular way. Stories that reinforce our sense of separation, alienation and victimization.
We often forget that concepts are simply tools, simply a short-hand, for describing part of what we experience. We begin to believe that the concepts really do describe reality and so we stop paying attention to the lives that we are living moment to moment. We know what an apple is, so we don't really notice this apple's shape, color, flavor, aroma and texture as we eat it while doing something else. We are disconnected from our actual experience and then don't understand why we feel that our lives aren't quite right.
An example of the difference between thinking, the conceptual layer of our lives, and the reality can be found in an experience that is fairly common for people who do sitting meditation. After sitting quietly, holding the body in one position for a period of time, we begin to notice unpleasant sensations in some part of the body, perhaps the knee. We tell ourselves there is pain in the knee. It seems like a very solid thing, this pain, and something that lasts for a very long time. We may become frightened about it and start having thoughts about how our knee is going to be permanently damaged and we will end up having to have knee surgery and then we won't be able to run or play tennis or sit cross-legged for a long time.
But if we let go of the concept pain and look more closely at the experience, we will see something very different. We will see that what we call pain, which seems so solid, is actually a quickly changing series of sensations. There may be tightness, then sharpness, then an unpleasant vibrating sensation. We will see that these sensations come and go and maybe a similar sensation will arise a few moments later. We recognize that pain is not solid and lasting but simply a changing series of sensations quite different from the thought of pain, even though both are unpleasant. As we see more clearly the actual experience, it becomes easier to be with it and there is less fear and contraction.
So we have this paradox that thinking is an essential tool but it is also an impediment to experiencing our lives fully. The way through this paradox is to recognize the experience of getting caught in thought and to learn to relate to our thinking in a different way.
One of the first steps in recognizing that we are caught in thinking is to understand the various forms that thought can take. We can experience it as words, whole thoughts, judgments, images, numbers and imagined sounds such as a song that repeatedly plays in our heads. The particular form that it takes will depend on our conditioning, the forms of thought that we are most frequently exposed to. If we listen to a lot of music, when the mind becomes quiet we may find that lots of songs arise into awareness. If we write poetry, we may find that poems arise in the mind. It is simply important to recognize that they are all forms of thought.
When insight meditation teachers talk about the process of confusing thinking with reality, we often use a word that the Buddha used. We speak in terms of clinging. I'm sure we've all had the experience of taking laundry out of the dryer and finding it clinging together. As we attempt to pull the clothes apart, it is as though there is a magnetic force pulling the pieces of clothing together. In the same way, if we look closely at our minds we can see that most of us have minds that are highly conditioned to be attracted to thoughts, to cling to them. Another way of talking about how we get caught in thought is in terms of identification. Being identified with a thought means that we are caught up in it. We are caught in the content of the thought. We are caught in believing that what we are thinking is who we are. Or, we are caught in believing that what we are thinking is who the person or thing we are thinking about is.
As we begin to recognize thoughts and that we are getting caught in them through clinging or identification, then we need to learn how to relate differently to our thoughts. The mind typically has a tendency to respond with the idea that if thinking is a problem in meditation, then the solution is to not think! If you've already been practicing with mindfulness of breathing, you have probably noticed that no matter how much effort you put into focusing on the sensations of breathing, if the mind wants to think it will form thoughts. When we believe that meditation means that we are not supposed to be thinking, this can be very frustrating and can lead to a lot of judgment (more thoughts) that we are not doing it right. Instead of trying to stop thinking, the practice is to let go, to stop the clinging or identification by meeting our thoughts with mindfulness.
We begin practicing mindfulness of thinking by making the intention to recognize when we are caught in thought and to meet the thought with mindfulness. This process of recognition often takes a while. We may get caught in a thought and then have many more thoughts develop from it before we recognize that we are caught. But that moment of recognition is a moment of mindfulness. Each time we meet a thought with mindfulness, we are strengthening the tendency for mindfulness to arise and weakening the tendency to identify with thought. As we continue to practice and as our concentration and mindfulness strengthen, we will often find that it is easier to recognize that we are caught.
Sometimes after we recognize that we are caught there will be a judgment that we haven't been practicing very well. It is important to recognize that this is just another thought! Remember that mindfulness is attention that is bare of judgment. It is also bare of decision-making and bare of commentary or story-telling. When we meet thoughts with mindfulness, then we are not manipulating our experience. It is not necessary to make an effort to let go. When we meet thoughts with mindfulness, we are just letting thoughts be thoughts without trying to make them last or to make them go away. And when we do that, the thoughts will reveal their impermanence to us. Often when we meet them with mindfulness they will simply come and go on their own, or as the Tibetans say, they will self-liberate. If the conditioning for the thought to arise is strong enough, it may arise again. But this is simply a new thought to be greeted with mindfulness as well.
Instructions for Practicing Mindfulness of Thinking
• Begin as previously instructed using the breath as the primary object of meditation.
• Allow the mind and body to become settled with some concentration.
• Then, when you become aware that your attention has been pulled away from the breath or that you have become lost in thought, meet that thought with non-judgmental awareness until the thought disappears. Then return to the breath.
• If you are finding that it is very difficult to hold the thought in awareness, you might try gently labeling it as thinking ... thinking ... thinking until the thought disappears. Labeling or noting can be a support for developing concentration and mindfulness. However, it can also become a habit that can interfere with your ability to be present. When able to hold a thought in awareness, see if you can drop the noting.
• As your ability to meet thoughts with mindfulness strengthens, notice the quality of impermanence, how the thoughts arise, are present, and then pass away.
• After the thought passes away, return your attention to the sensations of breathing until another thought pulls your attention away.
• If you ever feel confused about what you are experiencing or what you should do, simply return your attention to the breath.
• Continue this practice until your meditation period is over.
• During the day, take a few moments to be mindful of your breath, body sensations, moods and thoughts. This is a good way of helping yourself to settle down into the present moment and to bring your meditation practice into your everyday life.
You have now received all of the basic instructions for practicing insight meditation. To help you learn the instructions and to help you recognize different aspects of your experience (body, feelings, mind-states and thoughts), the instructions have focused on each of these objects separately. However, once the instructions have been learned, one does not have to focus on one aspect of experience for a whole meditation period. Instead, one practices the skill of bringing kindness and mindfulness to each moment of experience whether it is a sensation, a mind-state or a thought and whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
We begin by learning how to meet our lives with mindfulness and kindness by practicing as we sit on a cushion or chair. However, the whole of our lives is the true sphere of our practice. So whether we are sitting, standing, walking or lying down, we practice with our experience, with our lives. As we are able to open to all of our experience and see our lives as they are, we can discover for ourselves what leads to stress and suffering and what leads to contentment and joy.