Working with Thoughts:
Gathering a Scattered Mind

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Once you get the hang of acknowledging thoughts and placing our minds on the breath, you’re likely to meet the full-blown fantasy.

Under a fantasy's spell, we don't even remember that we're meditating.

A fantasy is a very large thought that has the power to take us far, far away from the present moment. It's like a story that we tell ourselves, a movie that we run, a soap opera that draws us in and puts us in a trance. Because it's potent and absorbing, we'd sometimes rather believe a fantasy than reality.

When you begin to meditate, you may consider yourself well-trained if you're just able to see that you're fantasizing, even if you're caught up for most of a meditation session! Sooner or later you will see how fantasy has the power to take over your mind, keeping you from the present moment, stealing your ability to focus.

After your next meditation session, ask yourself, "How much of the time was I actually here? How many countries and how many people did I visit?"


Use the technique of holding your mind to the breath to help steady yourself enough to deal with the wild thoughts.

Working with a fantasy is like working with any other thought. As soon as you notice this kind of distraction taking place, acknowledge it as "thinking" and kiss it good-bye.

Learning to recognize a fantasy and release yourself from it is how you build up some kind of strength. Then you have to say good-bye to that very potent thought that might hold all the anger we've cooked up, or all the sexual energy, or all the insecurity. So acknowledge it and try to return to the breath.

Why “try to?” Fantasies can take us so far away—having a romantic vacation in Tahiti, fighting with our mother in another state—that we aren't even aware of our body, not to mention the breath. Suddenly dropping a very big thought for the immediacy of the-breath can be too harsh and cause you to hold the mind too tightly. When control is too tight, the mind will bolt at the earliest opportunity.

Coming back in stages and gradually re-engaging the breath is one of the most effective ways to work with fantasies. Bring yourself back to the room you're sitting in, try remaining present in the room and let the environment ground you until you feel yourself in your body. Then reconnect with the breathing. If small thoughts come up, you might actually appreciate them! "Before, I was thinking about being at the North Pole. Now I'm wondering what's for dinner. That's an improvement." And it is: at least you're here.

Fantasies feed on hope and fear, creating worry. Worrying and anxiety lead to stress, and stress causes suffering and clouds our perception of what is happening in the present moment.


Beyond fantasies you encounter strong emotions. Emotions are hard to deal with — even in our most tranquil, open-minded state! So when you encounter them in meditation, first slow down, breathe, and stabilize your mind.

Then, depending on your ability to stick with the technique, you can take one of two approaches.

Let it go
If you've developed your practice to the point where you can just breathe and let a strong emotion go, do this. Relying on our stable mind, you can let the power of your meditation bring you back to the breath and the emotion begins to lose its grip.

Dismantle it
An emotion that feels as big as a house can be dismantled brick by brick by contemplating it. No matter how solid it feels, an emotion — like everything in the world — is fabricated, made of parts. The most painful, powerful aspect of negative emotions is that they seem complete and whole. A thought builds into a crescendo called emotion, which we then embody. The tight ball of hatred, desire, or jealousy feels so solid that we actually feel it in our body as a lump in our throat, a rising wave of heat, an aching heart. When we're caught up in negativity, it's hard to imagine penetrating it, cracking its shell.

Think of a time recently when an emotion possessed you totally. Did you act out? Or did you let it burn inside?.

What are the sources of the emotions that arise when you’re meditating? With reason you can identify the source of an emotion: what somebody said to you, an expectation that led to disappointment, perhaps not even a person but an object—a chair or a car or a piece of clothing.

To dismantle an emotion, you make the emotion the object of your meditation. Emotion isn't premeditated or logical in any way; it’s a response to something or somebody. So you dismantle an emotion by engaging the missing element, reason, and investigating the feeling. "Why am I jealous What has made me feel this way?" For a moment rest your mind on these questions instead of the breath.

Contemplating the emotion, you begin to see that the person or object that triggered the emotion is not the reason for what we feel. We're the reason. The emotion is a creation of our mind. We've turned a thought into a seemingly solid entity and held on to it.

In every emotional situation, there's a subject, an object, and an action. Here's an example:

Riding in a car in India is a frustrating experience. The roads are barely wide enough for one car, and they're very bumpy. When you're stuck behind a slow truck that's spewing diesel smoke—as it seems they all do—there's every reason to want to pass, but it's rarely possible. You become obsessed with the road, the truck, and your desire, and after a while all you can think about is how angry you are. When you finally pass, you see that the truck driver is just a poor man trying to eke out a living. Your anger lightens immediately.

In this situation, the subject is "me," the object is the truck, and the action is being stuck behind it. The pain of the situation is also the object. You're angry at the truck for being where it is, and at yourself for being where you are. You're also angry at being stuck in traffic, and you're angry at being angry. These are the components of this emotion.

Reflect on a recent experience of anger. Examine the experience from this perspective. Does your anger lighten? Can you identify the components of your anger?

Knowing when we can meditate is honest meditation.

Sometimes neither letting go nor dismantling works. If you find you're too traumatized to use intelligence or to recognize and release, that contemplating the emotion only inflames it further, you need to calm down and relax. Involve yourself in a soothing activity: go for a take a shower, read a book, talk to a friend, watch movie. When you're calmer, you can come back to the cushion.