Some Instructions on Working with Thoughts in Meditation
Carla Brennan

While there are many things that can be obstacles in meditation, getting lost in and identify with thoughts is the most common. One of the first tasks of meditation is to disentangle awareness from our thinking, releasing it from imprisonment in the noisy, habitual  “monkey mind.”

As we learn to become mindful (intentional non-judging awareness of the present moment) we include all aspects of our living experience: sensations, the breath; sensory input such as sights and sounds; the range of feelings and emotions; mind states; and thoughts. However, it is important to note that the instructions for practicing with thoughts are a little different from practicing with our other experiences.

Part 1 – Meditating with thoughts
Because we must first be freed from the “fly-paper trap” of thinking in order to be fully aware of anything else, we practice disengaging from our thoughts and placing our attention on another “object,” such as the sensations of breathing.

During meditation, we will inevitably be hijacked by trains of thought. When we recognize that this has happened, the instructions are to return to the breath (over and over again). In this way, we gradually loosen the grip of compulsive thinking.

As we repeatedly return to pay attention to the felt experience of breathing, we are deepening awareness. And we are strengthening our ability to sustain attention (concentration.)

Part 2 – Meditating with thoughts
Even as we do the above we can begin the second aspect of practicing with the thinking mind.

The moment in meditation when we “wake up” out of being lost in thoughts, we can briefly observe the experience of thinking before relinquishing it to the background in favor of the breath. This is a moment of mindfulness of thinking. We begin to see thoughts as just thoughts, to see that our thoughts are a natural conditioned process coming from a complex brain. And we see that what the thoughts say are NOT necessarily true, accurate or wise. We begin to be able to choose between thoughts that are important and the thoughts of our inner “radio station” which plays the same negative themes repetitively. It is wisdom that makes this distinction. Wisdom arises naturally as awareness is unleashed.

Over time you will be able to simply witness the experience and process of thinking as opposed to being lost in its storyline. It often takes strong resolve to interrupt our addiction to thinking (including worrying, planning, fantasizing, rehearsing, judging, etc.) It certainly takes repeated effort.

Open Awareness
When we’ve become at least partially “unstuck” from our thinking habit, we can practice a form of meditation called “open awareness.”

Here we are mindful of the whole field of presence, just relaxing back and remaining open to whatever appears. In this practice our thoughts, including both language and imagery, just flow through awareness unimpeded in the same way that sounds come and go. We are aware that thinking is happening like “clouds appearing the sky” but we do not follow them or react to them.

It’s as if we are on a mountain top and taking in the whole view – clouds, blue sky, birds, mountains, trees, rivers – without fixating on any one thing. We allow it all, are present with it all. At this stage, thoughts continue but are no longer a constant intrusion. They are just part of the flow of our changing experience.