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working with thought

Thoughts are very useful! They are the natural activity of the mind. However, they also have a tendency to proliferate, and to influence and dominate your character. Thoughts can become fixed mental habits that inhibit your natural wisdom and compassion. They can be as light as wispy clouds in a blue sky or as heavy as dark clouds before a storm. Meditation is a great opportunity to observe your thoughts. I have noticed three types of thoughts: intense, habitual and occupying.

Intense thoughts

Intense thoughts generally arise because you have been shocked, because something painful has caught you unprepared. Thoughts that arise under the influence of shock and pain are often obsessive and repetitive. It is very difficult to deal with these thoughts because they are powerful and disturbing, and you can't become lost in them. When you meditate, notice what is happening. Try to create space in your mind by telling yourself that repeating these thoughts is not helpful, that you are making the situation more intense. Just let them go! For a few minutes, relax in the meditation, in the silence, in the discipline of concentration and enquiry.

habitual thoughts

Mental habits are a groove in the mind into which you are inclined to fall over and over again.

habitual thoughts

You might have a tendency to day-dream. Day-dreaming is characterized by a seductive, sticky feel. Like glue on your fingers, the more you try to get rid of it, the more it sticks everywhere. Day-dreaming often starts with 'if I had’ and 'if I was’ and then turns into a film where you are actor, director, producer and scriptwriter. In this film, life is wonderful. Everything goes according to your own plan without anybody’s
interference. You enjoy tweaking the dream here and there, rearranging this bit or that bit.

When I was in Korea, I used to spend days sitting in meditation day-dreaming that I was going to a hermitage to practice very hard, become awakened and save everybody. Then I realized I was not meditating but fantasizing about it. It was a total waste of time. You might have a tendency to day-dream about the perfect partner, house, child or job. Doing this too much leads to frustration because multidimensional reality will never fit into your one—dimensional dream. Concentrate on the breath and come back to reality, to the potential in this multifaceted moment.

going over the past

You might have a tendency to be obsessed by certain events in your past. Mulling over what has happened, you remember something somebody once told you or
did that was painful. You repeat the story to yourself over and over again, feeling worse and worse. Then you move to the future and plot revenge, playing with various scenarios for maximum effect: 'She’ll say this and I’ll say that and then I’ll get her . . .’ But plotting revenge is not very compassionate! The past has gone. Can you learn from it? Can you let go of it instead of dragging it into the present and recreating pain?

fabricating stories

Another mental habit is to fabricate a story out of very little. This habit is often caused by fear and insecurity. A good example is the way people sometimes think when they are waiting for someone who is late. At nine o'clock your friend has not turned up: 'Well, I’ll wait a little longer’. Ten past nine: 'He does not love me'. Twenty past nine: 'Nobody loves me’. Half-past nine: ’I hate the world!’ When he does finally arrive, with a good reason for being late, you could be so upset by your fabrications that you are beyond reasoning. With enquiry, question whether it is really true that this person does not love you.


Another thought pattern is to speculate, to create elaborate intellectual constructions. You read this, hear that, you put this idea and that philosophy together, and bingo! you have developed the greatest idea of the century. Then you sit there, refining and
repeating the speculation to yourself because you do not want to lose your fantastic idea. But is it experiential wisdom? Is it something that you can apply and live? You have to be careful not to get lost in enticing constructions. Come back to the breath, to the experience of life in this moment as you sit in meditation. If you have truly had a great insight, it is there within you — you do not have to elaborate it ad infinitum.


You might have a tendency to plan. Planning is very useful but has it become a habit? It is certainly a habit when you find yourself going over your plans for the hundredth time. By planning, we separate ourselves from the present and jump ahead in order to prevent any nasty surprises from happening. But life is unpredictable: a little planning is useful, too much is restrictive. Planning stops you from trusting in life and yourself. With awareness, returning to the object of concentration, come back to life in this moment. There is no need to plan anything for the next ten, twenty minutes — just be.


You may have developed a habit of judging. Do you judge yourself, others, everything as good or bad, right or wrong? By judging, you set yourself a little above and apart from reality. You are constantly commenting instead of participating fully in whatever happens. You relationships. A judging mind is a heavy burden. How can you lighten it without judging the judging, which would be even more burdensome? Come back to the breath, the authenticity of this moment which is as it is: cold, hot, possibly pleasant, possibly unpleasant. Can you feel without attaching yourself to the sensation or to its quality?


Do you make a habit of counting and measuring? As you sit in meditation, you might be calculating how much money you have in the bank, or the size of your mortgage. You might be trying to count the breaths you have breathed since you were born. I know someone who would estimate how many miles he had covered during walking meditation. Calculation passes the time but is this really what you want to do in meditation? There is a time for counting and a time for letting it go.


Do you make a habit of complaining and procrastinating? You might tell yourself that you could meditate if only the room were more silent, that you could become a great meditator if only the instructions were better. You can cause yourself so much suffering with 'if only’. Now is the only moment, this is the only breath.

It is easier to notice and enquire into mental habits in meditation if you do not focus on them directly. Take another object of concentration, like the breath or a  sensation within your body, and when you are distracted, gently notice the thought, naming it: 'day-dreaming' or 'planning’ or 'calculating’. Do not spend a long time describing the thought or explaining it to yourself. Just name it swiftly and come back to the object of concentration. In this way, the meditation will allow you to see your habits of mind without feeding them and increasing their hold on you. Do not be upset by your habits, just recognize them and, turning back to the meditation, rest again and again on the object of concentration. This will allow your mind to relax, to smooth out the groove of old habits and create a new groove of awareness, attention and gentleness.

occupying thoughts

The third type of thoughts are the light ones: the mechanical trains of thought where you start with Aunt Helga and ten minutes later find yourself thinking of New York, without being able to remember how you got from one to the other. You might spend your time making lists: what to take on holiday, what to cook for dinner, the clothes in your wardrobe, and so on. These are what I would call occupying thoughts.

Occupying thoughts do not have a great pull on your feelings or emotions. They just occupy the mind and provide something to think about. They are what the mind produces if it is left to roam at will. However, meditation requires a certain amount of discipline; you are cultivating concentration and enquiry. The aim is not just to sit there quietly without awareness. You are training the mind to become more alert in a soft but determined way. By noticing these light, occupying thoughts with enquiry, and returning to concentration, they become less sticky. If you want to think you can; if not, not. Thoughts become as light as bubbles and the mind is free and clear.