Mindfulness of Thinking.
In previous posts, here, here, and here, I’ve looked at some of the potential problems that can develop within conventional approaches to mindfulness. In this post, I’d like to look more closely at how, as a meditator, you might consider working with the common experience of thinking. For many meditators, thinking in meditation is synonymous with failing to meditate.
Neuroscientist, Sam Harris, articulates this common attitude towards thinking in meditation, and Sam doesn’t pull his punches:
“The principal enemy of mindfulness—or of any meditative practice—is our deeply conditioned habit of being distracted by thoughts. The problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking. In fact, thoughts of all kinds can be perfectly good objects of mindfulness. In the early stages of one’s practice, however, the arising of thought will be more or less synonymous with distraction—that is, with a failure to meditate. Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed.” (Sam Harris, Waking Up)
And so the general approach is this: when people meditate they try to focus on their breath or body and not allow themselves to be distracted by their thoughts. That is, they try not to allow themselves to be drawn into thinking, or to get lost in thinking. I’ve received variations of this instruction from many well-meaning meditation teachers over the years: “Allow your thoughts, but don’t get lost in your them.”
This teaching is further supported by compelling metaphors: your thoughts are like clouds, let them float through your mind without being carried away by them. Or, your thoughts are like trains; with mindfulness, you can stand on the train platform of the station watching trains come and go, but you won’t get swept away by the various trains. These and similar metaphors have appeal. Wouldn’t it be lovely to end the torment of the whirling mind? What’s the problem?
Some may not see this is a problem. This is, after all, a rather standard approach to meditation practice: don’t get lost in or distracted by your thoughts. But in my experience, there is a problem with this view towards how to be with thoughts meditation. Here’s the issue: whenever I try to establish enough mindfulness to be aware of thoughts as they occur, I find that my thoughts get interrupted by my own self-consciousness. That is, becoming aware that I’m aware has a way of cutting off the flow of my thoughts. This interruption doesn’t occur when I bring attention to other experiences like my breath or my body. When I breathe, and I’m also aware that I’m breathing, the breath doesn’t necessarily stop. Or, if I’m walking, and I’m also aware that I’m walking, and I don’t suddenly trip or stop walking. But, when this same kind of mindfulness is applied to thoughts, I do find that, with sufficient present moment awareness, my thoughts no longer flow— they stop, or become fragmented and incomplete.
Observing this to be the case, a different metaphor has occurred to me. The instruction: “Allow your thoughts, but don’t get lost in them,” is a bit like telling someone to run freely. But before they start running, you secretly tie their laces together. They might launch off with all sorts of vim and vigor, only to be laid out on the ground, knees scuffed and elbows scraped.
One of my teachers, Jason Siff, brought this to my attention. He described how the instruction to “not be lost in thoughts,” inevitably populates a meditation with reminders to “be aware,” or “to be present.” The result is that the meditator’s experience doesn’t flow naturally, rather it becomes a lurching, choppy process punctuated by meditative reminders.
While not exactly the same, imagine what it would be like if you were trying to read something, but that the text was strewn with reminders to “Be Aware” or similar such cues. Try reading this short passage from Proust and see how it flows:
“We believe that we Be Aware! can change the things around us in accordance Be Aware! with our desires—we believe it because otherwise we can see Pay Attention; Are You Paying Attention? no favourable outcome. We do not think of the Aware, Attention! outcome which generally comes to pass and is also Be Attention favourable: we do not succeed Pay Aware in changing things in accordance with Allow Your Thoughts, but Don’t…our desires, but gradually our desires change. The situation Be Aware That You’re Aware that we hoped to change because it was Rest as Awareness, Itself intolerable becomes unimportant to us. We have failed Let it Go and Go Back to the Breath to surmount the obstacle, as we were absolutely determined to Thoughts Aren’t Real do, but life has taken us round it, led us Let Thoughts Flow By Like Clouds in the Sky beyond it, and then if we turn round to gaze Notice the Impermanent Nature of Thoughts, How They Arise and Cease into the distance of the past, we can barely see Stay in This Moment; Just This it, so imperceptible has it become.” – Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
How did that go? How much of the passage were you still able to comprehend?
No privileged way.
So, in meditation, rather than privileging just one kind of awareness during meditation — namely a present moment and self-aware kind of awareness — perhaps you might try to be more receptive to all of your inner dynamics that go on while meditating. This will include different modes of being with your thinking: periods of being lost in thought, periods of being aware that you’re consciously thinking, and periods with relatively little thought. Of course, these are just three of many ways of thinking that you might come to see during meditation, but the point is this: by not privileging just one way of being with your mind, you may develop a more nuanced and complex understanding of what it’s like for you to be you.
Originally published on April 3, 2017