Thoughts in Meditation
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This excerpt from this weeks Musing, is a deep bow to Sayadaw U Pandita the modern leader of Vipassana who passed away over the weekend. A teacher that inspired and challenged so many meditators and meditation teachers. The principles of Naming (or sometimes referred to as Labeling) have been a constant source of inspiration and guidance in my own practice and in the resources that I share with others.
Thoughts In Meditation
One analogy that I like to use, when talking about meditation and the way our mind continues to be entertained and distracted by thoughts .. is to picture the mind as a popcorn machine. The type you find at the cinema.
Think .. bits of air-filled corn, flying around randomly, popping in all directions, a bit of this and a bit of that. Distracting. Attractive (smelling so good). Something we know is not so good for us (or we would prefer not to engage with) but we find ourselves making up all sorts of stories about why we should.
Popcorn = Thoughts in Meditation
Apparently we have an average of 67,000 thoughts a day, and most of these thoughts we have already entertained about a thousand times before. Most of our thoughts are just constantly circulating fluff. Again and again. Nothing fresh. Nothing new. Just dried up bits of old ‘popcorn’ .. and we have about 1.16 thoughts per second over a 16 hr working day, or 46.5 thoughts per minute over 24 hours.
As human beings we are designed to think!
Even in meditation, even at our most quiet point, there will nearly always be a wafting of soft thoughts that we can observe in the background. And unfortunately, one of the common misconceptions, or hurdles, for people wanting to learn meditation is the idea that they must stop all thinking.
But, thoughts are an important part of life and meditation is not a practice or struggle against them. Far better to become a friend to your thoughts, to listen and allow them to come and go as they wish, yet know that we do not need to drop everything (or drop our meditation practice) to become involved with them when the time is not right for us.
Thoughts that have an urgent need to be ‘heard’ can be treated like a needy child
We pause. We smile and take a breath. We take a moment to acknowledge the thought (as we would a child) and give them the space to be clearly heard.
BUT we don’t engage in dialogue with them during meditation.
Often this allowing and hearing is all that is needed for thoughts to relax their claim on our attention. In meditation we don’t suppress or repress .. as the saying goes what we resist persists, instead what we might do when a thought is particularly urgent or consistent, is notice that we have been caught up in a thought, and simply observe how that thought might be affecting our body, physically and energetically (such as tightness in the shoulders or tension in the head) AND try the technique known as ‘naming’ to return gently to your meditation.
Naming can be a wonderful addition to almost any regular meditation practice. The idea is simply to notice and then name our thought (or distraction) as it appears in the moment.
So .. we may have a Mindfulness of Breath practice, where we gently focus our attention on the inhalation and exhalation of each breath, or a Mantra practice, with a sound or word that we repeat silently in the mind .. and when a loud and insistent thought comes along .. we give it a one-word name .. silently note that name three times .. and then kindly let it go and return to our practice.
We observe the distraction. We name the distraction. We return to our practice. And in doing so, we have an opportunity to truly deepen our understanding of our own mind.
* When you become distracted by a thought, take a moment to look at what it is that’s drawn you away from your practice .. if you hear a sound make a mental note ‘hearing .. hearing .. hearing’ and then return to the breath.
* If you remember something, note ‘remembering .. remembering .. remembering’ or if it is something about work .. ‘work .. work.. work’ or ‘hungry .. hungry .. hungry’. Or it might be as simple as ‘thinking .. thinking .. thinking’.
* Gently and kindly … name the distraction three times and then redirect your attention back to the breath (or your foundation practice).
* At the end of your meditation, perhaps later in the day, you might reflect on what were the thoughts that were so urgent and so tantalising that they distracted you? What was taking up your mind-space?
Naming can also be an amazingly insightful tool outside of formal sitting practice .. something we can bring to our regular day by simply pausing in any moment (perhaps while waiting for the kettle to boil, or while travelling home on the train) and bringing awareness to where our mind is RIGHT NOW.
What you are thinking in this present moment?
It can be enlightening to notice the constant stream of thoughts that move through us each day. Mindfulness of mind (which is what Naming teaches us) allows us to truly ‘hear’ what we are saying to ourselves .. in that constant popcorn world of the mind.