Mindfulness of Thoughts
Transcribed and Lightly Edited from a Talk by Gil Fronsdal 1/30/08
We’ll start with some questions. Any questions or comments about the instructions so far or about your own experience applying it?
Question: I find when I start I’m nice and erect and very in focus, and as I meditate I find myself rounding down. Is it better as you go back into focus to go ahead and straighten up my spine again, I assume that’s what I should be doing.
Gil: Yes, it’s good to have a straight spine. There’s a certain element of mindfulness that’s required to focus on your posture and keep your posture erect, however, if you are straightening up every minute or two, then it’s not so useful. Maybe twice or three times in the course of half an hour is okay. If it’s happening more than that, what you may want to do is let yourself slump over, and then apply mindfulness to that, and notice what’s going on, do you tend to slump when the mind is getting dull or sleepy? Or when you are getting lulled by calm? Or are you getting complacent or is your mind drifting a lot into thoughts. Notice what is going on around the time that you are slumping. You might get the information you need to find out how to sharpen up the effort or attention.
It’s possible to meditate quite successfully with a completely slouched over posture. In Burma, men tend to meditate like this (severely slouched), and they get enlightened. The women meditate like this, (sitting with legs to one side), like the old way of riding horses, with one foot behind them. But the effect of this, is that it forces the body up and so the women in Burma sit with great dignity. One of the greatest sights of my life was in the monastery I was staying in there was a huge women’s meditation hall, and because it was a hot climate, two sides of two whole walls were basically open and you could see right through. In the morning, on the way to breakfast, I’d walk right by the women’s hall, and there would be 500 women meditating, and 500 women sitting up with tremendous strength and dignity. I was so inspired. I was never inspired like that by the men.
It’s also well worth cultivating enough mindfulness of the body to keep the spine straight, and what will happen at some point or other, the mindfulness, the meditation energy, the concentration will kick in, you will find it effortless to keep the back straight. Until the energy is awakened, you’ll have to keep using your mindfulness to stay straight and upright. Once it’s awakened you’re not going to slump any more.
What I’m trying to convey in this class is how to use attention effectively in a useful way so that our attention can help us not get caught by life, by experiences, our attention can help us become freer of whatever happens that goes on for us. Attention operates this way. We pay careful attention to what’s going on.
There are two ways in which careful attention or mindfulness if freeing. One way that it’s freeing is that you begin seeing what’s actually going on, and we can see the ways that we are caught, the way we are holding on or resisting. Seeing that clearly, then allows us to release it, we can let go, we can begin letting go, softening around it. That’s one way. So if I see that I’m clenching my fists, if I really know that I’m doing that, I can release it.
I remember once I was at the UC library desk trying to get a book which was not on the shelf, but had been returned, and they weren’t cooperating to look for it. We were a bit heated, not exactly— I was pretty adamant that I wanted that book. When the filing person left to go check in the back room, then I paid attention to my posture. I was leaning over the desk, way over. I hadn’t known it. But as soon as I saw it, I straightened up, got my feet back on the floor. So if you see something, you can hopefully let go, or begin the process of letting go. Letting go is not always easy, but you can begin. One is to see it. The other is the act of attention itself, mindfulness itself, doesn’t cling. It’s a very simple open awareness. And as you develop your awareness stronger, you get a sense of this awareness of this awareness that is free of what you are aware of. If I’m clenching or holding muscles really tight and I’m really concerned about this thing I’m holding on to, when I pay attention to it, the attention, chances are it gets entangled with my desire, it’s in there, kind of with it, I can’t see them as two separate things. But as the mindfulness gets stronger, you start seeing that mindfulness is separate of what you are mindful of. Mindfulness is different from what you are aware of. Once you start seeing that, you see that the nature of awareness is to be free. To be independent of what is known. That’s a second way that the mindfulness practice gives you a sense of freedom. The advantage of the second way is that you don’t have to let go in order to feel some degree of freedom or independence or spaciousness. As mindfulness gets stronger you discover this whole other capacity or way of being.
The way we emphasize mindfulness in our tradition, we try to develop mindfulness to be all inclusive, to include all aspects of our life. To include breath, our body, our physical body, to include emotions, our thoughts, the world around us that we encounter. Sights, sounds, smells, everything. There’s nothing that is meant to be outside of the scope of awareness. We say that is what makes awareness sacred in Buddhism. In Buddhism itself, awareness is the most sacred kind of thing, reality. What makes it sacred is when there is no outside. There is nothing we are excluding, saying “I can’t pay attention to that. That’s not permissible.” Sometimes in Buddhism it’s called “Big Mind”, the mind that holds it all. The awareness that holds it all within it, without excluding or shutting down or closing off or pushing away anything at all. That doesn’t mean that we don’t say no to things. It doesn’t mean that we don’t act in the world in ways to protect ourselves. But we don’t allow the awareness or the open heart to close down, even though we might say no to something.
In the 60’s there was an American who was practicing mindfulness in India and someone attacked her in the streets, some guy, she managed to break free and run away. She went to her meditation teacher and said, “What should I have done?” He said, “With all the loving-kindness you can muster up, you hit the fellow over the head with your umbrella.” So I don’t necessarily recommend hitting people over the head, but the principle was that you can have an open heart or open mind while you make choices in the world about how to act. You might say no to someone, lock your door; you don’t close your heart or your awareness to it. In Buddhism, to get a really good sense of this ability to have your attention be free and open and include everything, is considered to be sacred, part of the sacred realm. We discover that through the strengthening of mindfulness. The mindfulness gets stronger and stronger. It’s set free from what you are mindful of. Probably, what you’ll find, what you have found, is if you have a strong sensation in your body, pain in your body, you will react to that, we’re against it, we clench around it, we try to push it away – we have all these feelings of self-pity or anger, or despair. All kinds of things go on. All those strong reactions become connected or entangled with our sense of paying attention, of being aware of it. But as mindfulness gets stronger, the mindfulness itself begins to stand separately from, independently of all that. The analogy that is used in Buddhism is that of a lotus flower. A lotus flower grows up out of the muddy water, but as it blooms it’s untouched by the mud. You have a beautiful white lotus that is sparkly clean. It’s rooted in the mud, but it’s not touched by the mud. It has this purity. As the mindfulness, the awareness, gets stronger and stronger, it has this feeling of being lifted out, of becoming free from the mud, the places of attachment, of clinging and all that.
So in the spirit of being all-inclusive, a very important part of mindfulness is the world of right thinking. There are certainly meditators who have aversive relationships to their thoughts. There are schools of meditation where thoughts are considered distractions and you have to somehow shut them down, quiet them down, not have any thoughts. In the popular mind sometimes meditation is understood – the aim of meditation is sometimes seen to be as having a silent mind with no thoughts at all. This meditation we are doing here, the aim around thoughts is to be aware of them. To include them in the awareness, and in that inclusion, with time, learn to be free of them. Sometimes thoughts dissipate, and the mind does become silent. But also, because the mindfulness has gotten so strong that we are not “velcroed” to them, we’re not stuck to them, caught in them. A very important part of this practice is including thoughts, thinking, as part of meditation practice. But agreeing to do it in a wise way, with a certain understanding how to do that.
In order to do that, I think we should do it through meditation.
Take a meditative posture…Gently close your eyes. Give some attention to your spine. Maybe sit up a little straighter, more alertly, than you normally would. And that more alert spine perhaps will allow you a core or an inner strength around which you can relax.
Taking a few slow long deep breaths, as you breathe in, expanding outwards stretching your ribcage, your shoulders, back ribcage, and then as you exhale allowing whatever possible to relax around that core of the spine. Keeping the spine alert. As you exhale, softening the shoulders. As you exhale, allowing the belly to be soft as well. And as you exhale, see if you can soften the muscles of your face. Then letting your breath return to normal. Scan through your body, see if there’s some way that you can set your body at ease. Staying upright with your spine, setting your body at ease….
And then entering into the world of your breathing, into the way your body experiences breathing…For now letting go of your thoughts and concerns, so that you can better feel and sense the experience of breathing. Noticing how inhalation feels different than exhalation…
Now, either letting go of your thoughts, or letting them recede in the background, so that in the foreground of attention you are with your breathing. Breathing in, breathing out…
Giving yourself over to your breathing, so that the breathing has a chance to settle you and calm you. So breathing can help center you, as you center yourself around breathing…
If you notice yourself thinking, for the next couple of minutes, let go of that and re-establish yourself in the breathing…
And now, with a certain degree of calm and deliberateness, let go of your breathing, let go of paying attention to breathing, and now simply notice when you’re thinking. You’re welcome to think. No need to stop thinking now. But then, as you’re thinking, you’re clearly aware that thinking is happening…Rather than letting go of thinking, look at your thoughts directly, head on.
If your thoughts fade away as you watch them, just wait until they come back or go back to your breathing until such a time as thinking begins again. When it does clearly look at your thinking, see that it’s happening, be aware of it.
Very very softly, whisper in the mind, as you are aware of thinking occurring, label it or name it, “thinking, thinking.” Very softly.
For the purposes of meditation, what you’re thinking about is not important. But as we pay attention to thinking in meditation, you might notice other aspects of the process of thinking besides the content. So, for example, if you’re thinking words or images, what’s the quality of the inner voice? What’s the quality of the pictures that you see? The inner voice that thinks, is it soft and gentle, is it harsh? Adamant? Is the inner voice critical? Or very accepting, easy-going?
Is there a lot of energy to think? Or is thinking very subtle?
Are there any emotions connected to what you are thinking about? The process of thinking, is it connected with or comes out of any emotion? If there is, then quietly note the emotion. Include that in the awareness.
If thinking goes away as you watch it, relax into the space that’s left behind. Relax into the spaciousness of the quiet mind.
And then as you notice your thinking, notice if there is any physical side to thinking. Is there any pressure or tension connected to thinking? Somewhere in the body? Tightness? Could be pressure in the brain, in the forehead, tension around the eyes, the jaws. Holding in the shoulders, the chest. Is there some part of the body that feels activated in support of thinking, as part of your thinking?
Then is it possible to relax, soften any tension or pressure connected to thinking? Perhaps as you exhale, relaxing the thinking brain, like you’d relax a muscle.
Now can you let go of your thinking enough to re-center yourself on your breathing. Letting go of your thoughts, letting them recede to the background, and enter into the world of your breathing again. Hanging in there with the breathing. See if you can stay connected to a whole series of breaths in a row.
Then taking a couple of deep breaths, and when you’re ready you can open your eyes.
Imagine yourself after a busy stressful week, and so glad the weekend has arrived, and you’re going for a nice hike, you’re so glad to be out. You come to an edge of a river, a nice oak tree. Sit next to the oak tree, have your picnic. Looking at the river, you perhaps take a little nap, beautiful weather, nothing you need, nothing you want, you’re so glad to be away from all the busyness of your life. All that running after things, and doing things. It’s just so good to be there, to be content to be alive, to be present. Wonderful to be there on the riverbank in the shade of the tree watching the river go by.
And then, one of those showboats go by. Flashing lights, casinos, dance shows, dancers and everything. Pretty exciting. Next thing you know you’re on the boat, and you’ve been on it for the last 24 hours. And you didn’t even know it. What happened to the riverbank? Somehow you manage to get ashore and get back to the tree, so happy to be back there, watching the river, content, and the next thing you know you’re on a warship that goes by, and you’ve been fighting wars for a couple of days until you realize, wait a minute, how did I get on here? Then you get back on shore, find your place by the tree again, and then this really poor destitute raft comes by and next thing you know you’re struggling for survival on this desperate little raft. And then you wonder, “How did I get on here?” So you go back ashore again and back to your oak tree. And all these boats go by and after a while you think, you know, there must be a different thing to do besides getting on every boat that comes by? Why don’t I just watch it? So you decide to stay here, I’m not going to leave, I’m just going to watch it go by. I’m going to see it, the shape of it, the color of it, what’s going on. I’m not going to leave my place, my seat, I’m just going to let it go by.
That analogy is sometimes used for thinking. That we establish ourselves in the shade of our breath, content and happy, and then sooner or later some thought floats by, comes along, and we don’t even see it coming, we only know after a few minutes, hours, that we’ve been caught up in that particular thought world. A common one is planning, the word tomorrow bubbles up in your mind, and next thing you know you’re planning tomorrow, all the things you’re going to do and say, and eat and cook, and everything. Spend a few hours planning. Or then a thought comes up about the past, and then you start living in the whole world of regrets, or beautiful thoughts of how wonderful it was in the past. You live in the world of beauty, of the past, but still you’ve gotten on the boat. And so, much of life is lived on these boats of thinking. And some of them are beautiful and quite appropriate and healthy to be involved in, and some of them are quite painful and cause a lot of suffering to ourselves and to others. But even when they are healthy and good thoughts, they can also carry us down the river, and we can lose our spot on the riverbank where we are on solid ground, and stable, centered, and we can be independent and free from all the things that are going on. One of the things we’re trying to do in meditation practice, is to find ourselves on the riverbank, solid, with awareness, and learn to not get on the boats.
You can’t stop the boats going by, but you cannot get on. You can’t stop your thoughts, but you don’t have to necessarily pick them up, get involved in them. In this regard, I make a distinction between the English word thinking and a new word “thoughting”. “Thoughting” is what the mind does, it produces thoughts. You can’t stop the mind from “thoughting”. But thinking is when you get involved in your thought. Then a train of associated thinking goes on, one after the other, you get involved and caught up in that world. So what we’re trying to do is let the thoughts come up and just let them go by. It can seem rather impersonal, maybe a little bit uninteresting, or very strange, because some people don’t even know how much they are living in the world of thoughts, and how much they mediate, or see, or understand their life, through the filter of their thinking. They say that fish don’t know, don’t see the water they swim in. Humans don’t see the thinking that they swim in.
Part of mindfulness is to see this hugely important element of human life, and to very clearly see it for what it is, and then have some choice of how we relate to it. Chances are most of you have not chosen much about how you relate to your thinking, and how you get involved in thoughts. Some of you are probably a victim of your thinking mind, it takes you wherever it wants to go. Partly the reason for that is that some people believe that who they are, is their thinking. Their identity is so closely tied to what they think about, that it’s a completely foreign idea that they should be something different than their thoughts. If they stopped thinking, who are they going to be? If you don’t tell yourself stories about who you are, then who are you? It can be a little bit challenging.
An important part of mindfulness is to really see the phenomenon of thinking. We’re not at war with thinking, we’re not necessarily trying to push it away or say it’s bad. But some of them are painful. We’re trying to see it from the vantage point of the riverbank, as opposed to being in it or on it. From the vantage point of the riverbank, looking at the thinking, we might start noticing things we haven’t noticed before about it. They are different than the content, the ideas, the thoughts or the images.
In this last meditation I asked you to look a little bit; could you notice some other aspects of thinking besides the content? Could you notice if there was some emotional quality to it? If you think with the words, what’s the tone or voice which you think with? Are there any physical aspects to your thinking? Meaning, if you’re really churning up a lot of thoughts, you can even see it in some people’s forehead, they get all bunched up, the eyebrows bunch up. You see it, they are really thinking hard. The physical part of it. You ask someone to think about something they are really worried about, you can see the shoulders go up as they really bear down thinking about it. Or their jaws clench up. Or you can’t necessarily see it, but sometimes you can feel this energetic pressure or tension in the skull. I asked you to look if you noticed other aspects of thinking besides the content, and to just hang out looking at thoughts. I’m curious to hear from some of you as to what happened when you included thinking as part of the field of attention. When you focused on it. Because, if you can give me some examples of some of the things that have happened, I can respond and build on that.
Student 1: I noticed I wasn’t actually thinking, I was caught in emotions, in emotional stories. Things were going out of my mind, but it wasn’t even “thoughting” it was feeling.
Gil: What was happening with thinking while you were emoting?
Student 1: Some part of me thought I was thinking, another part said, no you’re not actually thinking, you’re going through some emotional story.
Gil: So, you couldn’t really see any thoughts when you actually focused on it.
Student 2: As usual, I start and get on the tomorrow boat, and start planning my day. I’m very kind with myself about it.
Gil: There wasn’t much opportunity to look at thinking, because as soon as you noticed you were on that boat. You were pulled in very easily.
Student 2: Most of my thoughts are involved around planning.
RETURN TO TALK:
Every time you come back from thinking you let go of it and come back to the riverbank. Every time you stop, let go or step back and look and are aware that you are thinking. It can be as simple as saying to yourself “thinking, thinking”. As soon as you label it as thinking, you’re not as enmeshed with it as when you’re not saying it. Those movements are very powerful, they only take a moment, they don’t look so dramatic, but they are actually very big movements of the mind. They are beginning to break old habits. People have spent a lifetime of developing a habit of just letting themselves just ride the currents of their thoughts freely without any kind of choice. Just going along. No wonder when you sit down and meditate, the mind wanders off in thoughts so easily, because it’s had so much freedom over a lifetime. Relearning and breaking the old habits goes relatively fast compared to how much time you spent freely thinking. We expect it to be by tomorrow, but it takes more than a couple of days. Every time you notice, “I’m thinking”, every time you let go of thought, is a very meaningful moment, it has tremendous impact on breaking that habit.
So meditation is content to do it whenever you can. That’s part of it. Sometime is just seems like you do it and you get pulled into your thoughts so much. Sometimes you need to arouse a bit more determination. Be a little bit more of a warrior. I’m going to keep doing this. I’m going to sit up straighter than usual, be alert, really pay attention. Even though I think meditation is supposed to make me calm, I’m not even going to try and make myself calm. I’m just going to really try and be alert to notice as soon as I wander off into thought. You start to get a handle on what’s going on. Once you start getting a handle on it then you can start relaxing. You might have to temporarily practice much more determination.
Student 1: Actually, something happened this afternoon, I started thinking of people I saw, and experienced the physical sensation, tightness in my chest, because I know the person makes me feel anxious. When I experienced I shifted my attention from thought to physical sensation, so I was wondering in terms of this process, today we are focusing on thoughts, but in general focus on thoughts, on sensations, if emotion comes up, should I focus on emotions, where should I focus?
Gil: That’s what I’ll talk about in a little bit as well, I’ll talk more detail about the instructions about thinking. Thinking is a complex process. It isn’t just insubstantial words or images that go through. The process of thinking involves much of who we are. It involves our body. Attention has to be very precise, concentrated and still, but almost every thought you have will have a physical aspect, a physical sensation that goes along with it. This physical aspect is sometimes quite obvious, like tightness in the chest. There is often an emotional component to thinking as well. It might be very subtle, but it’s there as well. There might be an energetic aspect as well. As we start paying attention to thinking, the naturalness of becoming aware of the bigger picture, that is more than just the content. So what you pointed out, the tightness in the chest, that’s part of the bigger package that includes the thought, the thought includes… I’ll talk more about it in a little bit.
Student 2: Part of the time I see pictures flashing like a movie, like a dream, how would you define it? Thinking?
Gil: Yes. Movies, images, visualizations that happen is considered in Buddhism a form of thought. It’s not verbal thought. Some people think more in images than they do in words. That’s how they process things. A lot of the same things are true there as you pay attention to the imagery, what the images are is not important to us, but rather what else is part of that package. Other feelings and emotions are part of it. Body sensations are part of it. Tightening in the body… How much energy is there in the images? Is it very energetic very clear very bright or is it very faint, distant, is it really close, are you really pulled into it, are you living in it, are you on that boat, the movie boat? Or are you watching it from a distance. There is so much to notice besides the pictures that are going on. Some people think in images. You can just call it “thinking” or you can call it “seeing” as you wish.
BACK TO TALK:
Thinking is a hugely important part of human life. In meditation practice one of the things we’re trying to do is not be pulled along on these boats. One of the many reasons for that is that chances are pretty high that the stress we feel in our lives, the suffering we feel, the anxiety and many things that we are trying to deal with through meditation are perpetuated or strengthened or catalyzed or triggered by what we’re thinking about. As we start getting a handle on how to be mindful of thinking, it has a big impact on the rest of our life, the other aspects of our life. It’s not always easy. Some people have a very hard time noticing anything to do with thinking. The thinking is very shy as soon as they bring their attention to focus on it. It just kind of evaporates. Some people have very little awareness of what they are thinking about. Some people it’s very clear. They live in their world of thought in a very clear way that’s an important part of their lives. There are different ways of being, one is not better or worse or right or wrong, it’s just how it is for us.
When thinking arises in meditation and it’s relatively easy to let go of it, then you are encouraged to just let go of it and come back to your breathing. Sooner or later it’s not going to be so easy to let go of your thinking. That takes two forms, one is you simply can’t let go of it, the mind is charging ahead thinking, doesn’t want to stop at all, can’t just let go of it. The other, you might be able to let go momentarily, but as soon as you let go for a moment, it comes back right away. It repeatedly comes back. If either one of those two things happen, then you want to quite contently let go of paying attention to your breathing and then focus on this phenomenon of thinking. Like looking at it right in the eye. “Thinking, I see you.” If you’re here and the thinking is there, then you’re free of it to some degree. If you are the thinking, you think you are the thought, then you’re not outside of it, you’re not on the riverbank. Look at it straight on, “thinking”, and saying the word “thinking” in your mind, very softly, gently, it can help you to look at it in the eye and say “I see you. I know this is what’s going on now.” So it’s a very clear cognizance that thinking is going on. Sometimes this is enough for thinking to just evaporate. Part of the reason for that is that in order for thoughts to turn into thinking and persistent thinking, there has to be fuel for them to put energy into them. If you clearly see it for what it is, “thinking”, and give enough attention that is free of the thinking. In a way, you’re not fueling it anymore, you’re not involved in it anymore. If you’re not involved, it dissipates usually, if it’s relatively mild.
Sometimes thinking is quite powerful. If you come to sit here and meditate with us some day, and you just robbed the local bank, and the police are chasing after you. Chances are you can’t let go of your thoughts that easily, they would be spinning along really fast. Certain activities happen in your life and you can’t put it to a stop. That’s normal. In the task in meditation there are two things you can do. You can keep letting go and come back to your breath, and let the breath help calm you. As you get calmer, that energy of thinking might dissipate. The other thing you can do, you can actually turn and pay more careful attention to the phenomenon of thinking the process of thinking. Noticing different aspects of it as we did in this meditation. For the purposes of meditation generally we are almost never interested in the content – in the story which goes with the thinking. We don’t focus on it, this is for other times and places, not for meditation.
You can notice the physical aspect of it, and when I can’t let go of my thinking very easily, I often find that there’s a sense of pressure or tightness in the area I call my brain. If I can let go of my thoughts, and soon as I let go of it, if that pressure is there, I just pump out another thought. What helps me is if I go feel the tension in my brain in my forehead, or in my eyes, wherever it might be, and relax it. If I relax it, then the pressure to think is not so great anymore. It’s easier to let go of it, and after a while I might not think so much.
It’s like this factory of tension or pressure or tightness, as long as it’s there, its job is to pump out thoughts. You have to somehow address that. That’s why it’s very helpful, when thinking is very powerful, to look and see what’s going on in the body. When you find something in the body, then you can let go of your thinking. Looking at your thoughts, then you just focus for a while on the physical aspect of it. The bodily things, tensions….do mindfulness on the body around that. If it’s not easy to relax, don’t make a big deal, an engineering project out of trying to relax. That’s not meditation. If it’s easy to relax, do it, if it’s not easy then be content that what we’re doing is mindfulness, just being present for things. Bringing our presence to be present. Feel what it’s like. As long as you’re present, you’re doing the practice. Nothing has to change. You don’t have to fix anything. You just want to be present for how things are.
There also can be an emotional aspect to the thinking. People who plan a lot in meditation, there’s a very strong correlation, many of them, the planning arises out of anxiety, fear, or apprehension. There is some feeling of anxiety around the planning. There are other causes for planning as well, it can be excitement, or delight, or creativity, or different things, but the majority of times, people find, it has to do with some anxiety. In that case, the anxiety is the factory for the thinking. You can let go of your thoughts as much as you want, but the factory is still going to work overtime, because the factory is on. What you need to do, is then do mindfulness of emotions, feel the fear, as we talked about last week. “Fear, fear…anxiety…” Note it, be aware of it, and feel it in the body. All the things we talked about last week about emotions, you do that. It’s like the thinking is the flag that says “Hey you! Pay attention over here.” Then we pay attention to the flag, but really what the flag is saying is to pay attention to what is holding the flag, the factory, the emotion. So we can forget about the thoughts and come back and feel.
Both the body, the physical sensations connected to thinking, and the emotions happen in real time, in the current here and now. Thinking also happens in the present moment, but often the content has to do with the past or the future. If you are connected to your body, to your emotions, you are here. If you are caught up in the world of your thoughts, in a sense, you might be somewhere else. We’re trying to be here. The emotional aspect of thinking, the physical aspect of thinking, is a great support to being present. It helps anchor us in the present moment.
There can also be energetic experiences with thinking. I find sometimes I can be sitting in meditation, very calm, very centered. My center of gravity, my center of being, of presence, seems to be down here, very nice feeling. Then, some really juicy thought will bubble up, and I’ll get into that boat. And as I do that, get into that boat, get involved in it, I can feel that sense of aliveness, vitality, whatever I have, very quickly move up into my upper chest, and sometimes into my head. I feel sometimes a little bit top heavy. This is where my aliveness, my vitality, the energy is up here. So then if I relax and let go, sometimes I feel it go down again. When you’re down here, your vitality, your energy is down lower, you’re more balanced. Lower center of gravity feels more stable, it’s easier to relax. It’s interesting to watch how the sense of energy or vitality or aliveness in your body shifts and changes depending on what you’re thinking about.
Occasionally it’s useful to be more precise in your noting besides saying just “thinking…thinking”. If its really obvious, and you don’t have to think about it, and you can just say “planning….planning”. You name it. Or “remembering…remembering”. And just see it that way. It helps break the seduction or the involvement.
There is one more aspect of thinking that is a very helpful perspective on it, and that is part of the package of all the different things going on as we think, it’s also our interest in it. You can notice as you track yourself thinking how interested are you. “Boy, am I ever interested! This is the best fantasy I’ve ever had.” Or, there could be a negative interest where you can be “Aghast! How can I be thinking this.” A negative interest. We’re caught in it, engaged in it. Sometimes it’s the interest that perpetuates and fuels the thinking. Sometimes it’s useful to notice the degree of interest that might be there. Sometimes that interest has a physical feeling of reaching forward almost, leaning forward, holding on, wanting, getting involved. You can feel the mind sometimes almost lean into, grab onto, want to get involved in thinking.
If it’s relatively mild, the task is to let go of it. If it doesn’t let go easily, then we very calmly include this in the meditation practice and note “thinking…thinking.” If it persists over time or keeps reoccurring over and over again, then very calmly stay in your place the best you can, look around and notice what else is happening besides the content of what you’re thinking about. Notice the physical aspects, the tension that might be there. If you’re thinking a lot, the chances are that there is some tension, some pressure. Notice the emotions that are part of it, they can be pleasant emotions, they can be difficult ones. You don’t want to be seduced by the pleasant ones. “Finally, I get to have nice emotions…” The pleasant ones will keep you caught up in thought as much as the difficult emotions. The purpose of mindfulness, which you are trying very hard to do, is not to get caught by anything. You don’t’ want to get on the emotion boat either. You can do that at other times. But not in meditation. Because there is something much more important to do in meditation. Then you can also notice the energy qualities connected to it, the intensity of it, the inner voice. Any of you surprised by the tone of your inner voice when you pay attention? At least one of you… four of you… Occasionally people who are surprised, they not only realize they are surprised by the tone, but by whose voice it is. They realize it’s not their own. Sometimes it’s a parent’s voice or sometimes it’s some teacher, usually a difficult teacher that somehow they have internalized. Internalized different people. Sometimes these voices, we realize how much we get entangled also with other people in our inner mind. Sometimes seeing all this can help us become free of it. That’s the task of meditation, to become free of all this. As you become freer, you’ll become more relaxed, more at ease. You’ll drop into deeper meditations as a consequence.
Student 1: This is related to my previous comment. It seems I’m unable to step back from my thoughts or body emotions. I can sort of step back, but maybe I’m stepping into my thoughts to watch those other two things. Maybe I’m stepping into my thoughts to look at my body and emotions. Do you have any guidance?
Gil: Some people confuse mindfulness with thoughtfulness. Because it’s so much how they orient themselves and understand their world is by thinking about things. People live in that world of thinking so much. That’s where they are resident. If the mail carrier is going to bring you mail, they are going to bring to 200 Thinking Place, because that’s where you live. Mindfulness is not thinking about something. I don’t know if this is a great example, but thinking about a massage and getting a massage is not the same thing. You can get a wonderful massage, and if you are thinking about what the experience is, it’s very different than sinking into the muscles allowing yourself to really feel the fingers of the masseuse. It’s tactile, it’s very present. You don’t need to think to feel the tactile experience of the massage. You can look at a sunset, you don’t have to think about the sunset to see how grand it is, how wonderful it is. You can have a silent mind. I went to hear a symphony some years ago. During the first half, before the intermission, I wasn’t understanding everything that was going on through my thinking. I had a good view of the orchestra pit. I was listening to music and kind of enjoying it, but I was looking at how the violins were being moved, the flutes were going this way, and commenting and judging and thinking. I was so involved in this world of thinking about what I was looking at, I realized after a while I wasn’t as deeply connected to the music as I could be, so what I did was I closed my eyes, and the thinking about the musicians and everything faded away, and I got really absorbed in the music. The music wasn’t thinking about the music. After the intermission then I was settled enough, and I could open my eyes and watch as well as listen without being caught by the world of thoughts. There’s a kind of silent quality to mindfulness. A silent awareness. It’s very important to make that distinction. That silent awareness is intelligent. If you’re fully present, you kind of register, you take it in, you know what’s going on. You don’t have to think about what’s happening so much.
Student 1: But how do I turn off this thinking, so I can listen?
Gil: If you can’t turn it off, your job is to study it. Become very familiar with what it feels like to have your thinking on all the time. What does it feel like physically? What does it feel like energetically? One of the things to look at when you’re looking at incessant thinking is notice that the mind is tired. This poor thinking mind….many people’s thinking minds are exhausted, so weary. It’s been going on and on forever. They don’t give it a break. So you can notice that. What does it feel like? What’s the subjective sense of always doing that, being that way? A very interesting question to ask. Sometimes in Buddhism we ask ourselves contemplative questions. I’ll give you an example of a little contemplation; we’ll do it together.
Close your eyes. For a moment connect to your belly or deep in your torso. Now I’m going to ask a question. Don’t think about the question, but see if some response bubbles up from inside.
“What would you be experiencing if you weren’t thinking” (Silence)
Okay. What came up for you?
Student 2: As I heard the water flowing and heard some cars go by.
Gil: Was that nice?
Student 2: The water was, the cars not so nice.
Gil: What happens occasionally when you ask that kind of question for people, sometimes the thinking is really a protection from feeling. Because if you think about stuff enough, make stories or fantasies. Some people go to fantasies so they don’t have to be present for life, because life is difficult. You have feelings and emotions. And if we had difficult trauma in life, those emotions are deeply embedded in us. So sometimes when you ask that kind of question what we can find out is how much the incessant thinking is a protection. That can open up an interesting door or window into what’s going on. I’m not saying that’s your case, but that’s one of the things to notice.
If you’re very careful when you meditate that you don’t get caught in the trap of wanting something to go away. Caught in the trap of judging and saying “this shouldn’t be there.” The basic approach of mindfulness meditation is to “know it”. And know it really well. A lot of wisdom comes from familiarity, which is bad news because familiarity means you have to hang out with it for a long time. For your case, you have to get really familiar with that part of yourself. So exploring in different ways can be really helpful. This is an example of something which is perhaps such a big part of you, it is also good to go talk with friends, go for a walk with friends, say, “I have this interesting thing, this thinking mind that’s incessant, can I just talk about it and explore it with you? Ask you questions about it?” Find different angles, different perspectives, get familiar with it.
Student 3: How can I distinguish in between or sorting out that I’m exhausted and tired of having thoughts too much or if I’m truly tired? This is different tiredness. I find I’m battling a lot, and checking out and not being here and not being in the body, and next thing, boom I’m asleep. Every time. This last exercise which was very short, I was able to not think and stay with the movement of my belly the entire time. Is that good?
Gil: Yes. That’s Great.
Student 3: But the falling asleep is so immense. And then when I think about that I think that 2 out of 3 Americans have problems falling asleep because they are thinking too much. I have the opposite, I’m falling asleep too fast.
Gil: Also, a high percentage of Americans are also sleep deprived. I like to say that some people need to sleep more than they need to meditate.
Student 3: I sleep 7 hours so I think it’s plenty and I shouldn’t be tired, and I’m checking out in the meditation.
Gil: It’s hard to know. People have different sleep needs. Some people need 9 hours. What you might want to try doing is give yourself more sleep for one week, 9 hours or 10 hours. Get as much as your body can possibly use. Then try to meditate, then see if you keep falling asleep. If you keep falling asleep and you know you’ve had all the sleep you need. Take a nap in the middle of the day. But if you keep falling asleep then there could be other things going on. There’s a variety of things that could be going on. There could be (not saying any of these is yours). One could be you are excessively complacent. Kind of given up. No real sense of inner life or vitality or interest in life. Once you’ve let go of the incessant doing and thinking. There’s no deeper kind of motivation or aliveness to fall back on. So you fall asleep. Another is falling asleep a lot is a very powerful protection that some people use so they don’t have to be present for themselves. Because being present means they have to feel their emotions and some people’s emotions are quite difficult. They can be deep, deep… all kinds of difficult anger, fear, lot of things, sadness, grief…
Student 3: I think that’s more the case. The checking out like avoiding. Would it be the same as avoiding?
Gil: Yes. That’s where the question, if you weren’t falling asleep, what would you be experiencing? If you ask that question in the right way, some people suddenly it dawns on them. “Oh, then I’d be really sad!” Then the instruction would be, “Now, start paying attention to sadness.” You’ve connected something really important.
In our meditation circles we have a lot of respect for when people fall asleep because it’s a protection, we have a lot of respect for that, we are not in a hurry to overcome that. Kind of a slow gentle way keep doing the best, exploring it, being present, don’t want to pop out of it too quickly, because there is an inner wisdom that knows when you’re ready.
Student 4: In your book you mentioned that it works even when it doesn’t work. Then, when you were asking to go and to think about your thoughts as they arise to look for your thoughts, so I was thinking about looking for my thoughts, unaware that I was thinking about looking for my thoughts which was finding my thoughts and catching myself in it. So I was actually completing the instruction. The point is that I’ve noticed in my life even though I meditate, I don’t think I meditate. I don’t believe it. I probably never meditated.
Gil: You mean you go through the form?
Student 4: I go through the form and sit and follow the instructions but I’ve noticed that although the actual content of my life hasn’t changed. I’m at a job I think it stinks. It’s a horrible situation, but I feel wonderful. I’m looking at it and I’m saying, well you know, what’s been done here? What’s been changed here? Actually the content is the same. But the perception and the awareness are different. And I think I could actually continue to the point of my demise quite content. Even though I’ve never been able to meditate.
Gil: Careful, meditation might spoil it then. (Laughter). We don’t want to spoil what’s going on.
There we go. So we say sometimes, in our meditation circles, that the point of mindfulness is not to have a new different kind of experience, but to see our experience in a new way. That’s what you’ve learned to do. You’ve learned a new perspective even though it stinks. Beautiful.
Student 5: It’s related to sleep. When I’m trying to clear my mind, sometimes I seem to get to a stage similar to what I seem to feel when I’m falling asleep, but I don’t actually fall asleep when I’m doing this, but it seems to be sort of similar, so am I just getting too lethargic. Should I up my energy level? What should I be doing?
Gil: It’s quite common, if I understand you. It’s quite common that as people get calmer in meditation that the calm becomes soporific. A dropping of energy. Sometimes if we get calm enough the mind begins to drift off into dream like states, much like sleeping. When sleepiness or dullness starts happening a lot, or dreamlike states start happening like that, because you’re too calm… It’s not that you’re too calm by itself, but calm needs to be balanced with energy. So if there is too much calm without enough energy to balance it, people will fall asleep or get dream-like, so the thing is to bring more energy to help balance it out. Sometimes it’s as easy as sitting up straighter. Sometimes people like to open their eyes. Sometimes it’s applying, awakening, a little more mental effort.
Student 5: I usually open my eyes then, because that seems to sort of bring me back. Is that ok?
RETURN TO TALK
So there’s one more thing. This is a lot, this thinking, I have a couple of more things to say. One is that if this seems too complicated, it’s really enough for a really long time to just stay with the breath. You don’t have to do all this, exploration of thoughts, if it seems too complicated. It’s something to have in the back of your mind, and in it’s own time and place, hopefully you’ll remember that instruction and it will become relevant. You don’t have to be racing around trying to understand everything. Just keep steady and relaxed, keep coming back to the breath, use your breath, and when it’s really compelling, your physical sensations, where they are compelling your emotions, compelling your world of thinking, you can begin exploring in this mindful way. But if you’re exploring thinking, there is one more interesting phenomenon about thinking.
If someone walked next to me talking to me as much as I talk to myself, I’d worry about them. I would beg them to stop. (Laughter). I’d pay them to stop. I’d probably call the authorities because I’d be worried about them, and not only because they talk so much, but because it’s so repetitive. I can’t believe how much the person is saying the same thing over again and over again. What’s going on? What’s most amazing is that we can say the same thing to ourselves 500 times, and it can be as interesting the 500th time as the first time. We’re the ones that should be reported to the authorities. We stay interested. A healthy person would lose interest. What is that interest like? What’s it about? A high percentage of the time, the thinking, what keeps us interested, because a lot of those thoughts are self-referential. They have to do without our favorite subject, which is me, myself, and I. So, the investigation of thought, it’s also to look a little bit, of looking at the content now. So to what degree is the content all about me. Just notice that, you don’t have to judge it, say that it’s bad or wrong. If you see how regular that is, just the awareness of that, will begin shifting it.
I had a little sense of this when I lived in Japan. I was living in a monastery in Japan, learning Japanese. I was trying to speak Japanese like I speak English, which doesn’t work so well, because they have a whole different structure for the sentences. But the Japanese don’t very often use pronouns, like “I, and you, and we”. They have pronouns they can use. They don’t often use it. Just understand by context what people are saying. Like if we’re all going to go now. I would say “Go”. I would not say “us”, “let us go”. “I’m going now,” rather than saying “Going?” It’s clear I’m the one who is going. Everyone else is sitting down. I don’t have to say I. It’s kind of like that. They don’t use the “I” pronoun very much in Japan. The usual way of saying it is 3 syllables long, can you believe it? It takes a while to get out of your mouth. Here I was learning Japanese, trying to speak it, speaking it like I speak English, which means that every sentence starts with “I”. So I’d be saying “watashi wa” that’s how you say “I”, that’s 4 syllables, and the monks would look at me. I got so self-conscious, I became so aware of how much my language was self-referential. I had no idea. When I was just in America speaking English because we all do it. It’s invisible to us. It was very instructive to me. It helped free me up quite a bit from that attachment to self and self-preoccupation. You might look at your thoughts that way as well. See what’s going on there. Then, if once you see the self-referential nature of it, there might be more going on that just the thoughts of self, there might be emotions connected to that wonderful self, that are self-referential. There might be body sensations, clinging and tightness, all kinds of things going on. There is a lot to notice.
When you do mindfulness practice you begin really valuing and loving noticing what’s going on. Like you’re a naturalist. Your field studies are yourself.
There’s a chapter in my book on thinking you might want to explore. Try out these instructions during the week, see how they work for you in meditation, but you might want to start focusing on thinking at other times and see what you can learn about yourself beyond the content of the thoughts. When you’re driving your car, talking to friends… Next week we’re going to talk about something very different, somewhat very different, but very profound in Buddhist context, which is mindfulness of the mind, with the idea that “thinking” is just a small little corner of the mind. The mind is much bigger, there’s much more going on. So we will do Mindfulness of the Mind.