lesson
6

Working with Thoughts:
Gathering a Scattered Mind

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Discursive thoughts

Working with wild chatter in meditation makes maintaining mindfulness much easier to do during daily life.

Beyond emotions you meet discursive thoughts or wildness. Discursiveness is the chatter that constantly clutters our minds, the routine mental buzz. Its made of random, non-associated thoughts as opposed to drawn-out story lines.

This ordinary discursiveness is like a low-level hum that obscures your natural clarity. As we meditate, you can bounce back and forth in your mind about what's going on at school or work, conversations you had—or would like to have—plans for the rest of the day, and yet still be aware that you're meditating. You might surface from such an excursion into the past and future by returning to the breath, but then the movement of your mind invites you to wander off again.

Discursiveness feels like flipping through television channels. You might experience it as the nagging desire to scratch our nose or as wondering how many minutes before our session's over.

Have you experienced this in meditation? Do you have favorite channels you flip through?

Do you notice the deadening effect discursiveness has? Have you found yourself at the end of twenty minutes of meditation thinking, "What was that?"


You might be tempted to be loose in trying to control discursiveness. However, it's essential to repeatedly place your mind on the breath. Recognize the thought, acknowledge it, let it dissolve, return to the breath. This breaks up the river of discursiveness.

Don't think about what kind of thought you're having—just see it for what it is, and place mind elsewhere. Experiencing the mind's movement at this level is much of our training in shamatha.

Subtle Thoughts

The precision with which you work with discursiveness brings you to the innermost circle of peaceful abiding. Here you are aware of very subtle thoughts arising in your stillness.

Its like standing next to an iced-over mountain stream; we hear water popping up in tiny bubbles. The thoughts come through like whispers. In our steady mindfulness of the breath, a little voice breaks through, "Am I doing this right? I feel chilly." Even though the surface is still there is an ongoing flow of water gurgling beneath. We call these "subtle thoughts."

Staying focused on the breath, just let these subtle thoughts arise and fall; they will naturally dissolve. Indulging these subtle movements by giving them any attention at all tends to strengthen them and will actually create disturbance in your mind

You will have to deal with them at some point. But in the early stages of shamatha, you're building another kind of strength by relaxing into the breathing. allowing the natural stillness of the mind to develop. Continually placing your mind on the breath decreases the movement of thoughts, which further calms the mind. Experiencing the stability and joy of your mind becomes much more appealing than listening to mental chatter.

Thoughts can last for a long time before we recognize them, but if we keep practicing, we will see them for what they are. We see that the experience of peaceful abiding is simply a gradual reduction of thoughts.