lesson
4

The Practice of Shamatha

4 0f 6

What about thoughts?

 

You’re following the breath and then you’re thinking about how wonderful it is that you're finally meditating and wondering what your friends will think.

As you sit and place your mind on the breath, the natural playfulness of the mind continually arises. You’re distracted by the movement of thoughts and emotions; the movement of thoughts easily becomes a flood. You’re wondering where you parked the car. You’re thinking about how good a cookie would taste right now. You’re thinking that you're sleepy and could use a cup of coffee. These thoughts are little stories we're telling ourselves. Most of them concern the past and future, not the present.

Thoughts and emotions can last a long time, but there’s a moment when they run their course. At that moment there’s a natural moment of awareness, of mindfulness.

Before you know it, you’re swept away by discursive thoughts and forget that the breath—not the thoughts and emotions—is the object of our meditation. When you notice that you’re thinking, acknowledge it. You can, if you wish, label this —"Thinking." Whether or not you label, when you notice you’re thoughts, bring your minds back to the breath. In acknowledging thoughts, we're recognizing the movement of the mind, the wildness of the bewildered mind. We're training in awareness of where we are and who we are. We're training in being undistracted and focused. We're training in being fully present.

Which meditation do you think is better: Resting in total non-thought or discursive emotional upheaval?

   

At this stage a certain amount of thinking is inevitable.

You can use that label “thinking” for everything — emotions, discursiveness, etc. “Thinking” and come back to the breath. It's a gentle and unbiased touch. It's not like a kid caught stealing cookies: “Bad thinking.”

Applying the technique and bringing your mind back to the breath takes precision. Use gentleness to keep the process neutral and light-handed. You don't need to analyze or judge a thought when it arises—or judge yourself for having it. The contents of the thought, whether it's about the football game or our deepest, darkest secret, are neither good nor bad. A thought is just a thought. Chastising yourself for thinking is also just a thought.

So the instruction is to see the thought as a distraction and come back to the breath. This kind of gentleness makes for a healthy meditation practice.

In Lesson 6 you will learn more about working with thought in meditation.

When your peaceful abiding has been flooded by a current of thinking, acknowledge this. Catch it before it becomes an emotional torrent. Acknowledging it, you allow the thought to dissipate, and you return to the breath. You remember that now I’m practicing meditation and remind yourself that this is not the time to think about those things but to simply pay attention to your breathing. Refocus your attention and say to yourself, "Now I am placing my mind on the breath."