Thoughts: Why We Practice Mindfulness

“With mindfulness, you can stop taking them so seriously. You can come to know that your thoughts make a good servant but not a good master. You can step back and listen to your thoughts mindfully and then decide whether they’re useful or not. It’s true that you still need some thoughts to plan for the future and to problem-solve, but you could eliminate 90 percent of your thoughts and still have plenty to do the job.” Jack Kornfield

If you prefer to listen.

Thoughts are really why we practice mindfulness, to be come aware of when we are thinking, what we are thinking and how that impacts what we say, what we do and even the quality of our lives.

Thoughts are images and sound bites, not reality. Sometimes thoughts feel like they are true when they are not. Scientists estimate that we have 50,000-80,000 thoughts per day.  That is 2,100-3,300 thoughts per hour. We are not aware of most of our thoughts, they are underneath the radar.  Most 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 what we do with those thoughts.

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. But, 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. Or we can choose to change the channel on out 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 thoughts are the master and we are the servant. When we are aware of our thoughts, our thoughts are our servant, and they can serve us well.

When we look closely at thoughts, we find that many of our thoughts are figments of our imagination. They are stories that we made up.  They might be replays of the monologues of your parents, or other influential people in our lives.  Other thoughts come from our inner critic who is so worried that we will fail that it is constantly trying to fix us, even when we are  not broken.  Many of our thoughts were helpful at some time in our past, but they continue on despite the fact that they are no longer helpful.

Usually those thoughts are in our Top Ten Tunes.  Over the next week sit down at the end of the day and write down the thoughts that repeated themselves. They play like old records, repeating a theme over and over. We can make a list of our Top Ten, then when we notice them, we don’t have to play the record all the way through. When we let the record play all the way through, we are strengthening the neuropathway of that story.

You will notice most of your Top Ten Tunes are negative, although some may be positive. Negative or positive thoughts seem to come naturally. But there’s a third kind of thinking, neutral thinking. This judgment-free thinking does not come naturally, it needs to be learned. Neutral thinking acknowledges that the past can’t be changed, it shuns attempts at illusion or self-delusion.

According to Trevor Moawad, “Neutral thinking strips away the bull and the biases, both external and internal. There are more biases in this world than there are fruit flies and gnats combined. They’re everywhere you look, many of them buzzing around your own psyche right now. Confirmation bias, selection bias, negativity bias, recency bias, gender bias, optimism bias, pessimism bias— it’s hard to clearly perceive reality when your subconscious is busily prejudging it.”

Right now, your eyes and ears are 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, not videos.  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.

That can get us lost in negative thinking, and we can become distressed. Our prefrontal cortex stops working and our amygdala pushes us on 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. To be honest, when caught in cognitive shock, we’re fortunate if we can even remember that we want to be awake.”

Thoughts are powerful elements in our lives. The mind is a wonderful servant but a horrible master. When the mind is the master, we have these ridiculous, repetitive thought streams which limit our sense of self with judgments, defenses, ambitions and compensations.  Our beliefs and fears blind us. We have a whole drama department in our head, and the casting director is indiscriminately handing out the roles of inner dictators and judges, adventurers and prodigal sons, heroes and victims. There are all sorts of roles we are handing out to ourselves, sometimes that we are not even aware of.

We tolerate this constant chatter in our minds.  If you were watching a movie and you didn’t like it you would change the channel.  We have this chatter going on in our heads 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.

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. We can identify thoughts as simply that—thoughts. Our thoughts 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 (confirmation bias).

Thoughts like that 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. I am not feeling my breath, I am not feeling my body.  I am up in my head saying “I am a bad meditator.”, telling the story over and over. 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.

Most of us cannot even list twenty of the thoughts we had in the last hour. We have 2,000 to 3,000 thoughts each hour that we are not aware of. With mindfulness we can become more aware of our thoughts and the contents of our own thoughts. This is our internal soundtrack. 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.

So, the question you want to ask yourself is: “What is going on right now?”  If you are always planning for the future and want to enjoy the present, you may develop the habit of asking yourself “What is going on right now? What am I seeing? What am I hearing? What am I feeling? What am I sensing?” Pay close attention to whether you are adding on to that.  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.

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.

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, we have a two to three second head start to turn on our prefrontal cortex to analyze the thought rather than reacting from our amygdala. This allows us to not identify with or become lost in the thought. The sensations in the body are our bell of mindfulness.  Something is coming up that you should pay attention to. We can stop and take a breath to look at things more clearly.  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 my mind wanders again and again, “I am getting more practice bringing my mind back.”

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 them. When you have a thought, ask yourself, “What am I believing” When I have the thought, “I am a terrible meditator.”, what am I believing?  It might be that “I am not good enough, I am never going to be successful at anything.”  We have deep beliefs about ourselves that make us insecure. These beliefs 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.

When thoughts bring up uncomfortable feelings we may want to ask ourselves, “Can I let this experience just be?”Allowing our experience to just be requires a critical understanding: that it’s more painful to try to push away our own pain than it is to feel it.

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.