I just can’t stop thinking…
When I tell people that I teach meditation, I find that one of the first comments I get is, “I just can’t stop thinking when I meditate.”
It turns out, this is one of the most common misconceptions about meditation.
In this post, I’ll explain a few things about thoughts and meditation and go on to tell you about what I experience as it relates to thinking in meditation.
Thoughts are part of meditation
You’ve probably seen images of those meditation masters who can sit for hours with a slight smile on their faces, perfectly still, as if they haven’t a thought in the world.
I’m here to tell you they’re having thoughts. And unless they have reached samadhi (enlightenment, nirvana, or the equivalent), the thoughts just keep coming and coming and coming.
Humans evolved to think. It’s the job of the mind. From the moment you’re born, you’re thinking.
You’re exploring the world, analyzing, putting everything together. You’re assimilating language, learning social and cultural cues that will integrate with your personality.
You’ll use the mind to understand what it is to love and be loved, to feel pain, to feel happiness, and the array of emotions that characterize the status of the mind.
Later, you’ll use the mind to learn to read, to write, and to assimilate, categorize, and make conclusions. You can’t stop this. You won’t stop this from happening.
Taming the “Monkey Mind”
In Far Eastern cultures, they often use the term “monkey mind” to reflect all the thoughts and directions the mind likes to go.
With meditation, even though you can’t stop thoughts, you can begin to learn to tame them.
When you sit down to meditate – whatever style that may be – beginners will almost always find that their mind seems to “rev up.” This is completely normal. It’s even expected.
With a regular practice, however, what starts to happen is that the mind learns to become more of an “observer” of thoughts.
As thoughts arise, you can imagine they’re like clouds in the sky. You can even visualize those thoughts turning into clouds, and then rolling on by until they leave your awareness. Then you re-focus on whatever the focus of your practice is (the breath, a candle, a mandala, a mantra, etc.).
The thing is, teaching the mind to re-focus is the only goal in meditation. It is not to make thoughts go away. In fact, if you resist your thoughts by trying to shoo them away and “not think,” you’ll only end up frustrated.
There’s that saying, what you resist, persists.
Let the thoughts come.
Just let the thoughts come. Because come they will. The trick is not to follow the stories the thoughts bring.
You will often find that you follow the stories anyways. When you become aware that your mind has drifted onto a thought tangent, just gently refocus. No matter how many times it takes.
Over time, you’ll start to notice that instead of a thought coming into your awareness every second, you might experience a bit of a lull so that you might go a few seconds without a thought. That is a moment of transcendence.
As soon as you think, “Ah! I’m not thinking!” you’ve left the transcendent field. Again, refocus on the focus of your practice. And be kind to yourself.
Meditation isn’t a contest. It’s not a race to see who gets to enlightenment. It’s a tool to help with teaching you to be more centered and calm. To be aware and more present.
Now, when it comes to the masters, they have learned the “art of refocus” – they have re-focused hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of times! In doing so, they’ve never stopped their thoughts.
Eventually the thoughts DO get farther apart. They get father and farther apart such that over time they are few and far between. This is samadhi: the absence of thought.
But it comes after tens of thousands of hours of practice – if ever! And it shouldn’t even be the goal of meditation. There are more immediate rewards of having a solid practice.
Thoughts actually release stress!
What if I told you that thoughts are actually a good thing in meditation? Thoughts are an indication that you are releasing stress. It’s important to remember, however, that the content of the thoughts do not usually have any bearing on the stress your mind needs to release.
If you notice that you have a barrage of thoughts and it seems impossible to let them go, just think: you’re releasing stress. It’s something you’ve needed to do!
Again, be kind and don’t berate yourself for these puffy clouds in your vision. Just let them come. It’s what you need to do at that moment in time.
When you realize that you’re thinking, just bring your attention back to your focus. Again and again. Fifty times. One hundred times. A thousand times.
If you stick with it, you’ll start to see monumental changes in your life. I promise. I know. It happened to me.
My experiences with thoughts in meditation
When I first began to meditate, I gravitated toward mantras. I love reciting a mantra as a focus. Yet I know that everyone’s different: some people like focusing on the breath, or doing a body scan, or practicing loving-kindness.
Years into my practice, I switched to focusing on the breath. I thought that was harder but it was a welcome challenge. I have since returned to a mantra practice – it just feels powerful to me.
I share that because I started a regular practice in 2008. Before that, I meditated, but not regularly. (And you need a regular practice to really see benefits from it).
Through it all, my mind has never stopped thinking. I just got comfortable with all the thoughts. No matter what happened in my life, I pressed on.
I experienced such calming and bliss from meditation that I kept up with my practice and I wasn’t even sure I was “doing it right.” Generally, if you’re sitting to meditate, have a focus, and re-focus when you’re aware that you’re following your thoughts, you’re doing it right.
But I kept going. All these years later, I still have thoughts. They come like flocks of seagulls sometimes. Or particularly thick clouds. They’ve never stopped. But, I do have moments where I am aware that the thoughts have stopped. It’s not that often.
It is so awesome when it happens.
It’s like my body and mind go into a stillness that I have never known was possible – and actually still be alive! My breathing will slow way down, sometimes to the point where I won’t even know I haven’t taken a breath for awhile.
A puddle of stillness
What is it like, that stillness? It’s difficult to describe unless you have experienced it yourself.
Think of the most still, small, clean and clear puddle of water you’ve seen. There’s a moment where you feel like you can see all the molecules and atoms at once, while looking out from underneath the water up to the sky, while feeling a sensation of warmth and happiness.
Add to that the feeling of comfort in knowing that you’re perfectly safe, that you are exactly where you should be, and you could almost touch the center of the universe….
I only ever have those moments once in a great while. I have learned that those experiences are like a little reward for sticking with my practice, but should never be the reason to meditate.
As soon as I become aware that I have “entered the stillness,” my thinking brain has kicked in and I’m out of the silence just like that.
After thousands of hours of meditation, I still have thoughts and I have LOTS of them. I know that when my mind is particularly active, it’s usually when I’m experiencing more stress in my life, as well.
Thoughts are healthy and GOOD!
When you become aware that you’re thinking and not focused on your object (the breath, a mantra, or whatever your focus is), gently return to our focus. You are literally rewiring your brain to focus, no matter what.