Nearly everyone who tries to meditate will at some point worry that they are thinking too much during meditation. Do either of these sound familiar?
“I tried meditating, but I couldn’t because I can’t stop thinking”
“My mind just won’t go still when I try to meditate”
What if I said, however that the aim of mindfulness meditation is not to ‘stop thinking’ but to change our relationship to our thoughts? That in fact, thinking during meditation does not mean you’re getting it wrong?
Let us take a step back for a moment. How often in everyday life do you notice that you’re thinking? Probably not that often. Our minds are typically full of thoughts for much of the day and we’re often just carried along on the current of these thoughts. We’ll accept them as intrinsically part of us, without the need to question them. We’ll act on some; for instance, a thought that we need to go out and buy bread. Other times, thoughts will preoccupy our consciousness for most of the day; perhaps anticipation for a big presentation. It can sometimes feel like our brain is overflowing with thoughts and we can’t turn them off, however hard we try. Particularly when it comes time to fall asleep.
Buddha described humans as having a monkey brain, with thoughts represented by a gang of screeching, drunken monkeys swinging around without care or reason. The monkeys are running the show. Their overbearing antics making you feel overwhelmed and out of control, without truly being conscious of what it is that’s causing the problem. The thing is, you can’t tame the monkeys by ignoring them. Far from it. You need to become aware of the monkeys and reason with them.
Meditation is the tool we use to build awareness. We practice paying attention, on purpose to a specific ‘anchor’ (an anchor is what we focus our attention on to keep us in the present moment). Different meditations use different anchors, but the most common ones in mindfulness are the natural flow of the breath, sensations in the body and a mantra (such as in a loving kindness meditation). As we practice paying attention to this anchor, our mind will inevitably drift into thoughts. We have left the present moment and are caught up with our monkey brain again. Once we become aware that we are thinking, we are back in the present moment and take our attention back to our anchor. This process of becoming aware of thoughts and then returning to the point of focus IS the meditation. Over time, as we become more skilful meditators we will start to notice our thoughts drifting sooner and sooner, until we rarely find our thoughts drifting at all. The drift is re-directed before it barely becomes apparent.
If you’ve been battling with your thoughts during meditation or have given up on meditation altogether, how about giving it another go? Here are some suggestions for coping with thoughts during meditation.
- Try not to set any expectations for your meditation such as ‘relaxing’ or ‘not thinking’. It’s better to set an intention such as ‘I’ll focus on the flow of my breath for the next 10 minutes’ and see where that takes you.
- If you notice that your thoughts have wandered, congratulate yourself rather than feeling frustrated. This moment of awareness is exactly what you are meditating for.
- Be kind to yourself. Try not to force or push your thoughts away. Just acknowledge that the thought is there (e.g. “I notice that I’m thinking I need to pay that bill”) and then gently turn your attention back to your point of focus.
It doesn’t matter how many times you notice your thoughts and then go back to your point of focus. This is still a successful meditation. You have practiced the skills of awareness of thoughts, being in the present moment and placing your attention purposely on a set anchor. All essential to the practice of mindfulness more generally. You’re becoming aware of the monkeys, but how do you reason with them?
As you practice this skill of awareness during your meditation, you will inevitably start to become more aware of your thoughts during everyday life. When you notice your mind running away with worries, you can start to reason with them. Reasoning with our thought monkeys generally means questioning our innate sense that thoughts are facts. I may think I can’t run a marathon, but is that actually true? If I question that thought I’ll probably conclude that actually, if I had the right training and nutrition, I probably could run a marathon, in time. What I lack is the motivation to run a marathon, not the ability. This is a fairly simplistic example but it holds true for all of our thoughts. Rarely do we think in fixed facts. There is nearly always room for at least one alternative point of view that has the potential to calm our monkeys.
So, if you’re worried about thinking too much while meditating, you are in good company. Even the most experienced meditators will have thoughts during a meditation. The act of becoming aware of your thoughts and returning to your focus is exactly what we’re hoping to practice. We’re taming the monkeys, not banishing them. Practicing becoming aware of thoughts during meditation, also allows you to tame your monkey brain in everyday life so you can respond more calmly and purposefully to life’s stressors.
Why not try meditating again; welcoming the opportunity to become aware of your thoughts and see what happens?