One of the biggest challenges that people find when they come to meditation is how to deal with thoughts. There is a big assumption that in order to meditate we must, somehow, stop thinking! Actually, we can’t do this. The mind thinks! That’s what it does.
(Listen to the audio, led meditation below)
Then there is the chaotic nature of mind and the random pattern of those thoughts. It comes as a surprise to us that we can’t ‘control’ our thoughts somehow. If our thoughts are us, why can’t we decide what they think? It’s almost as if our thoughts actually aren’t part of us. They seem to float in from outside somewhere. The phrase that is often used here is that “thoughts think themselves”
Much of our experience is like this. If our toe hurts, we can’t tell it to stop. It just hurts. We have little or no control over it. The same is true for thoughts. They are another part of human experience over which we have little control. It would be easier to try to believe that thoughts didn’t exist. That they were somehow artificial. But this doesn’t help. They do exist. Not in the same way as a table but we can perceive them. They are there.
Of course, we have many different types of thought. We plan things, we create things, we worry, we scheme, we imagine etc. The first step in meditation is to be able to step back from our thoughts. To not allow them to take us away from the present. The body scan is great for this as it is a very good way to practice focussing on the five senses and in particular the sense of touch. Actually, by definition, when we are focussed on our senses, we are existing in the present. When ever mind kicks in, we are carried away by it and no longer in the present.
I always think the best comparison to thoughts is when we go to see a movie. Movies definitely exist. We can go to a cinema to see a movie. Modern cinemas are amazing. 3D even 4D cinemas now exist. They really take you into the story. But here’s an important distinction. The movie and the story. You can look on them as two different but very connected concepts. The movie is containing a story. So we can understand thoughts in this way. A thought is like a container carrying a story within it, just like a movie. The story within the thought doesn’t exist, but the thought does. At first this may be a difficult concept to grasp but the more you practice with meditation the more this starts to make sense.
We also need to begin to understand how emotions fit in to all of this. Emotions and thoughts go hand in hand and to start with, it may be difficult to make a distinction between them. Until you realise that we don’t think emotions, we feel them and we feel them right through the body. Not just in the head. An emotion like anger for example. When anger arises we feel a great deal of tension in the body. But the thoughts that arise as a result of anger really reveal how thoughts and emotion couple up. We find that the primary thought that arises is justification. It is almost as if the mind is justifying how the body is feeling. There is a certain truth in that. Our ego protects itself in all manner of ways and it does tend to self justify how it is feeling. Until we start to notice, clearly see and understand this we are trapped by it. But when we notice, we can start to step outside. This reveals all sorts of things to us and one of the main things is that the thoughts aren’t always true. We think that we think our thoughts and therefore, by definition, they are true to us. But we find through meditation that they aren’t. Sometimes, we may not know why an emotion has arisen. Some buried-deep experience that gets brought to the surface brings up fear or anger. The mind then searches around for an explanation of how it is feeling. Latching on to the first thing that makes sense to it. Which isn’t always true or correct.
The practice of labelling of thoughts trains us to step back from them. We see them as these containers flowing through the mind and avoid getting drawn in to their stories. This process gradually becomes more and more familiar to us. Really helping us to understand the impersonal nature of our thoughts. Starting to see that they aren’t actually part of us. They are just another experience in our lives. Yes, there are times when they are useful. We need to plan aspects of our loves and also solve problems. But we don’t need to be doing this all the time. In fact, for a significant portion of time, we can just reside in the present.
When we practice in this way, the thoughts melt away. We come to meditation believing we are our thoughts. But if the thoughts melt away, who or what is left. Where is the self?