lesson
6

Working with Thoughts:
Gathering a Scattered Mind

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Taming the mind in meditation involves a gradual process of gathering the scattered mind. When we sit, thoughts do not disappear – nor do we try to make them disappear. In this lesson you will further explore working with thoughts.

Note: For further exploration see Turning the Mind Into an Ally.

The outermost circle represents our daily life. As we move in toward the center we work with different levels of thoughts—from the gross to the subtle. The point in the middle of the circle represents the fortitude and clarity that underlie the wildness of our scattered mind.

Spend a few moments reflecting on each "level" of thought. What is your relationship to each? How aware of each are you?

Self awareness in your daily life

Making your mind an ally requires self-awareness on every level. So, before you even place your mind on the breath, it’s good to begin meditation by practicing some kind of contemplation. How often do you take the time to see yourself with clarity?

After you sit down and before you begin practicing the shamatha technique, slow down and reflect on your presence in the world. Spend a few minutes thinking about what you like and don't like, what you 're worried about, and where in your life you feel a sense of relief.

Yes, you can cultivate self-awareness even at the outer ring of your life. Having the patience and honesty to be self-aware is the basis of a healthy sense of self. Taking the meditation posture — grounded, balanced, and relaxed — you embody healthy self-awareness.

Acknowledging thoughts

When you begin to apply the meditation technique, following the breath and acknowledging thoughts as they arise, the sheer volume of thoughts can feel overwhelming. This is sometimes (traditionally) described as a waterfall. (Yes, for hundreds of years meditators beside yourself have experienced this!) The shear volume of water rushing over the falls can feel more overwhelming than the content or intricacies of the thoughts.

You may even think, "I wasn't this bewildered before. Meditation has made my state of mind worse. It was supposed to give me peace, liberation, and tranquility, but now I'm more angry and irritated than ever."

Have you experienced this? What do you think is really going on?

Chances are you’ve just never stopped to notice the level of thought and emotion that you experience all the time. This glimpse into your wild and overheated mind can frighten you. Meditation is showing us the nature of the beast. This is why it takes courage to practice peaceful abiding.

At this stage you’re simply recognizing the individual thoughts in the rush. Finding the breath within the torrent of thoughts might feel impossible. You know it's here somewhere, but when you look for it, you get lost and distracted by the waterfall.

This stage is really important (even though it may not feel so great). Give it your appreciation. By recognizing the wildness of your mind, you begin to develop synergy with it. Seeing the torrential rain of thoughts is how you begin to train the mind. We can't possibly meditate without having first experienced the wildness of our mind!

So simply recognize thoughts, and then recognize them again. You're noticing the movement of our mind. Once you can recognize them, begin acknowledging them in passing: "Oh! A thought!" The point is to be quick and neutral. If you look at the thought slowly, deliberately, or judgmentally, you’re only adding more thoughts to the process! That won't help.

A thought occurs. It is neither good nor bad. Recognize and acknowledge it. This brings you back to where you are, sitting on a cushion and trying to place your mind on the breath.
You 're learning how to cut through the discursiveness.

Our vibrating mind

At every stage, shamatha is a practice of noticing how the mind vibrates— how it creates story, speed, and solidity—and learning how to tune it to the present moment. To recognize a thought is to see the mind vibrating. To acknowledge that we're thinking slows the movement down. When we recognize the minds movement, we realize the possibility of peaceful abiding. When the mental frequency is no longer vibrating with movement, we experience the naturally even and immovable quality of the mind, if only for a moment.

Recognizing, acknowledging, and releasing thoughts, we realize that we don't have to cling to the mind’s movement as if it were a life raft. We'll still be here even if we let go. Releasing the thoughts and returning to the breath gives us a sense of space and relief. In that instant we are grounded, so to speak, because we can see ourselves as separate from our thoughts and emotions. There's distance between ourselves and our thoughts, which we come to see as the effects of the speed of our mind. We gain perspective.

Putting distance between ourselves and our thoughts, not being swept into the mind's movement, our minds become more pliable and we have more clarity about our direction in life.