How to work with your thoughts during mindfulness meditation and yoga practice. Co written by Rob Schutze, Clinical Psychologist and Jean Byrne PhD. This blog is adapted from the Mindfulness Based Functional Therapy Workbook (that Rob developed at Curtin University) and focuses on how to work with thoughts during mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness and Thoughts
Mindfulness is all about cultivating awareness of what is happening in each moment with a non-reactive, accepting attitude. We usually begin teaching mindfulness by developing accepting awareness of our bodily sensations and our breathing – or at least this is how it is taught in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. But at a certain point we begin to focus more explicitly on our thoughts. Our aim is to practice, as best we can, being aware of the thoughts that are constantly arising, but without getting too caught up in them. This can be quite challenging, which is why in a great deal of mindfulness training focusing on sensations is where we begin.
Often people think that to meditate is to stop thinking! Our aim is not to stop our thoughts or to suppress them. This would be futile. If you’re not convinced then try this exercise:
Find a clock or stopwatch and set yourself the goal of spending 30 seconds thinking about anything but a pink elephant. It doesn’t matter what you think about, just make sure it has nothing to do with a pink elephant. Do this for 30 seconds.
How did you go? Pretty difficult, right? That’s because the intention to not think about a pink elephant actually contains within it the image or thought of a pink elephant. It’s the ultimate paradox, and we come across many a paradox in this mindfulness adventure. If we cultivate an attitude of non striving – or as the Bhagavad Gita might teach us – action without attachment to the fruits of that action – we often end up with the outcome we had hoped for anyways! This notion is hard for our ‘doing’ minds to grapple with. Nevertheless, when it comes to thinking, you will have a hard time ‘emptying your mind’ or stopping your thoughts if you try to do it; just like trying to not think about a pink elephant makes you think about it even more.
So how might a quiet mind arise?? Well for one it takes A LOT of practice. Basically we practice observing the thoughts without pushing them away whilst also getting dragged into whatever story we are telling ourselves about past or future. This is where the practice of letting things be is helpful It’s about observing and letting be, observing and letting be; over and over – seeing the thoughts bubble up and pull you in, and then letting them ber and coming back to this moment. Basically if you want to let the thoughts, story, worry go then first you have to LET IT BE – you would just let it go if you could (as Jon Kabat Zinn likes to say!)
So how do I practice this?
There are a few techniques that can be helpful. For example, you might like to visualize your thoughts as pictures projected up onto a movie screen, while your awareness is “you” sitting in the audience watching the show. You don’t need to be one of the actors on the screen (which is like being dragged into the thoughts), you can allow them to do their thing while you watch. Or, you might prefer to see your thoughts as clouds that drift across the sky of your awareness. Another helpful image is of yourself standing at the bank of river. Imagine your thoughts as the flow of water and your awareness as “you” standing on the bank. Each time you get sucking into the content of your thoughts and fall in the water, simply pull yourself back to the river bank and continue watching the waves and eddies that are your thought streams.
Another useful technique is labeling. This is especially helpful when you are doing a breath meditation or body scan and you become involved in a stream of consciousness, a thought stream, which is a distraction from your chosen object of awareness (i.e. breath or body). When you eventually catch yourself having drifted away, you might note that fact using the label, “thinking”, and saying that to yourself before gently escorting your attention back to the breath or body. Labeling can also be more specific. So you might use the label, “planning” or “worrying” or “remembering” or “fantasizing” or whatever captures what is happening in that moment.
The trick here is to not get caught up in analyzing the thoughts too much, as in “was that planning or was it worrying? I guess I’m planning this project because I’m worried I won’t get it done and really there’s a good chance I won’t because there’s only two weeks left and…”. You can see how thoughts breed more thoughts. So if a label immediately comes to mind then use it, otherwise, just plain “thinking” will do. Labeling is a tool to help you let go of the thoughts. So as you are labeling, make a conscious effort to let go of the thought and just let it be; let it have its own life without squashing it. Just let it be in the background and bring your chosen object of awareness (e.g. breath or body) to the foreground. As you can see, this observing and letting go of thinking involves another key aspect of mindfulness – acceptance. It is only by accepting your thinking, rather than fighting it, that it will quieten.
Yet this doesn’t mean you have to accept the content of your thoughts, just the fact that you are thinking. So a key focus of mindfulness of thoughts as an exercise is making a distinction between awareness and thinking. Because we spend so much of our time consumed by thoughts and using our minds as tools to solve problems, it’s almost as if we start to see thinking as the same as awareness. But awareness and thinking are different. Being mindful of thinking makes this even clearer because we start to observe our thoughts; our awareness becomes distinct from its object, which in this case is thinking. Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? But practice will help.
The really important thing about separating awareness and thinking is that it allows us to not take our thoughts so seriously. We start to see thoughts as just mental events, rather than facts, just like sensations are physical events. This is sometimes called developing detached mindfulness because we’re no longer so enmeshed in our thoughts. So now we see we can have a thought and accept that process, that event, without accepting or believing the content of the thought. Funnily enough, while it seems like we are ‘detaching’ actually we are giving ourselves the opportunity to become more full present in the present moment and our life in general without our thoughts dragging us into the past and future.
It can also be interesting outside of our meditation practice to examine the content of our thoughts. This might uncover thoughts that are not true or are distorted, thoughts that guide us into life choices that are not what we want or what is best for us. Being mindful of thoughts (particularly unhelpful ones we habitually believe) takes away their power. If we realise we don’t need t always believe our thoughts, then the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves or other people can drop away. That can only be a good thing as it allows us to encounter ourselves, and others in each moment, with an awareness of change.