“Well don’t ya go thinkin’, and thinkin’, and thinkin’
And thinkin’ so much ’till you’re stranded behind
Don’t ya go thinkin’, and thinkin’, and thinkin’
And thinkin’ so much ’till you’re losin’ your mind” Steve Forbert
Thoughts are simply what our minds do, they are neither good nor bad. It is our relationship with our thoughts that is important. It is essential to be aware of these thoughts, as they are a driving force in our mood, behavior, and, ultimately, our life.
According to Michael Singer, “The mind can be a dangerous place or a great gift.” We practice mindfulness to reduce the danger and enable it to be a great gift. The mind is dangerous when we are not aware of what we are thinking, or when we let our thinking go into a never-ending loop. It’s a great gift when we use it to see reality, problem solve and determine the right next step.
As we have 2000-3000 thoughts per hour, we are not aware of most of our thoughts. About 90% of the thoughts we have are reruns, rehashing the past or stirring up anxiety about the future. We can’t control what thoughts come up. Our brains are designed to have thoughts. What we can learn to have control over is our relationship to those thoughts.
Our goal in meditation is not to stop our thoughts, but to change our relationship with them. I see three types of relationships we can have with our thoughts. And of course, we can have some combination of the three or move from one to the other.
- Lost in Thought
- Head in the Sand
Lost in Thought
When we are lost in thought, our thoughts become our master. We often have trouble changing the channel on our thoughts as we let anxiety take over. Then we get on the hamster wheel and keep going around and round.
We tolerate this constant chatter in our minds. This chatter telling us how horrible we are, we eat too much, we are fat and lazy and we will never be able to meditate. We let that mental chatter go on and on until we somehow come to believe that these ruminations, judgments, and worries are an accurate representation of how our lives and the world ‘really are.’ What they are is really just thought bubbles, figments of our imagination.
Thoughts are stories that pull us into a narrative, which might not be true, and they pull us away from what is happening in the present moment. For example, if you have the thought” I am a bad meditator.” When you meditate you are not feeling your breath, you are not feeling your body. You are up in your head saying “I am a bad meditator.” telling the story over and over.
When we are lost in negative thinking, we can become distressed. Our prefrontal cortex stops working and our amygdala pushes us onto the hamster wheel of reactivity. The wheel spins round and round and we can’t get off no matter how hard we try. According to Ezra Bayda, “This is called “cognitive shock,” which turns off the cognitive mind’s basic ability to function. When the thinking brain is on sabbatical, we simply can’t think clearly. During cognitive shock, the “old” brain, which is based on survival and defense, takes over. At this point we’re likely to attack, withdraw or go numb, none of which are conducive to awareness.”
Head in the Sand
Sometimes when the thoughts are unpleasant, we put our heads in the sand and try to ignore the thoughts. When you ignore your thoughts, you think they go away. But they remain in your unconscious. No matter how hard you try to push them away, they keep coming back sometimes without you even being aware. We have a natural resistance to feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. So, when unpleasant thoughts swarm in our head, we leave the present moment and distract ourselves. But resistance keeps us hooked.
It takes a lot of energy to try to suppress your thoughts. Research studies show that suppression creates the very preoccupation that it’s directed against. What happens when I say, “Don’t think of a pink elephant.”?
According to Erza Bayda, “Our deeply believed thoughts of personal insecurity may not be evident on the surface in a given situation; truthfully, we’re often unaware of their presence. But their poisonous footprint often manifests itself in our anger, blame, depression, and shame. These deeply believed and well-hidden thoughts of insecurity thus act like radar, and we often seek out experiences that confirm that our beliefs are true—the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. “
Michael Singer says, “When you resist, the energy has no place to go. It gets stuck in your psyche and seriously affects you. It blocks your heart’s energy flow and causes you to feel closed and less vibrant. This is literally what is happening when something is weighing on your mind or when things just get too heavy for you. “
Our reflex to resist stiffens our body by contracting our muscles, and also contracts our mind. Our prefrontal cortex stops working and our amygdala does our thinking. The “old” brain, which is based on survival and defense, takes over. That is why we withdraw or go numb. Unfortunately, when we put our head in the sand, it closes down the possibility of making more skillful choices.
A more skillful way to deal with our thoughts is to become curious. This judgment-free thinking does not come naturally, it needs to be learned. It requires us to step back and take off our rose colored or dark glasses. We attempt to see reality as it is, without distorting it. We acknowledge that the past can’t be changed. And we can get creative about choosing our next words or actions.
Become curious about the biased stories you tell yourself. They begin with your eyes and ears telling a biased story to your brain, which then tells you another biased story, and each stop along the way in this game of telephone gets you a little further away from reality. The most dangerous bias we have is our memory of the past. We think our memory of the past is reality. But our brains are not video recorders, they take photos. We fill in the spaces between the photographs to make up our stories of the past. We concoct what we think happened. When we are believing the stories of our past, we are believing in a figment of our imagination.
When we are curious about our thoughts, we find that many of our thoughts feel real, but are not true. We can choose to change the channel on our untrue thoughts, but it is not easy to do. The way we learn to do that is by meditating. Meditating slows us down enough so we are aware that we have thoughts. Until we are aware of our thoughts, we can’t do anything with them. When we are not aware of our thoughts, our minds are dangerous. When we are aware of our thoughts, our minds can be a great gift.
We identify thoughts as simply that—thoughts. When we are curious about our thoughts, we see they are not reality, not the way things ‘really are.’ And, more important, our thoughts aren’t who we are. They may be a little part of us, but they are not all of us. Sometimes we let our thoughts limit us. The thought “I am a bad meditator.” leads us to not want to meditate. When we do meditate, we have the thought “I am a bad meditator.”, confirming in our minds that our initial thought was true.
Reflection: How have you been managing your relationship with your thoughts?
We can’t turn off the thoughts, so if you are coming to meditation to turn them off, you will be disappointed. Meditation is about seeing into this stream of thoughts. When we see the thoughts, we become the master and the thoughts lose their power over us.
With practice, we can choose what we do with those thoughts. If we are aware of the thought, we can choose whether we want to remain lost in the thought, whether we want to believe the thought and whether we want to allow that thought to influence our words and our actions.
Mindfulness practice allows us to look deeply at our thoughts in a kind and nonjudgmental way. If we judge our thoughts, we are practicing judgment and we can get really good at judging ourselves. If we are kind to ourselves, we are practicing kindness and we can get really god at being kind to ourselves. Mindfulness is not just about seeing the thoughts, it is about looking at them in a curious, kind, nonjudgmental way. We learn that thoughts and stories are always present but not always true.
Our mindfulness practice helps us to work with our thoughts in two very important ways.
First, become aware of the constant torrent of thoughts cascading through our mind.
With mindfulness we can become more aware of our thoughts and the contents of our own thoughts. We need to notice our habits of mind and how repetitive our thinking is. Simply listen to your thoughts with mindful awareness. It is like you are watching that thought on a movie screen. Here it is again. You will see the evanescent nature of thoughts, that they are fleeting ideas, all impermanent.
Pay close attention to whether you are adding on to the thought. Typically, we add the thought “something is wrong”—either wrong in general, or, more likely, wrong with another person or with ourselves. Looking at the sun we start to think tomorrow is supposed to be gray. We are no longer in the present moment enjoying the sun, we are in the future seeing the gray sky.
Second, we learn to extricate ourselves from the stories we are constantly creating.
We must develop the skills to disentangle ourselves from all of our thoughts. We can realize that just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to believe it—much less act on it—and certainly not get caught up in the whole stream of thoughts. We discover with great relief that our thoughts do not fully define us.
We need to acknowledge the experience of a story unfolding, and feel the emotions and body sensations related to that story. If we can feel the body sensations, that can be our bell of mindfulness. We can stop and take a breath to look at things more clearly. This allows us to not identify with or become lost in the thought. We can transform one-sided thoughts of certainty into a world of liberating possibilities. Instead of thinking “I am a bad meditator.”, we can think when our minds wander again and again, “I am getting more practice bringing my mind back.”
The reason we are so interested in our thoughts is because we don’t want to create more mental suffering for ourselves or anyone else. Our mental suffering comes from desperately holding on to our thinking and beliefs. We want to still ourselves by practicing meditation so we can become aware of all that is going on. We want to slow down the mental chatter so we can see what is happening. We want to rest in the spacious embrace of the loving heart instead of getting lost in the negative thoughts.
Meditation is a tool to get intentional use of attention and awareness. We want to see what we are paying attention to and be aware of what is going on. All we are doing when we are meditating is choosing what we are going to attend to, and how we are going to attend to it. Remember the point of mindfulness is not to get rid of thoughts, but to learn to see thoughts skillfully and change our relationship to them.
So, don’t you go thinking and thinking and thinking, thinking so much you are losing your mind. Instead, may your mind be a great gift.