Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.
Over the last twenty years, I have been forced to recognise that I spend far too much of the time when I attempt to meditate, sitting on my cushions lost in thought. This thinking is rarely helpful.
These thoughts, that insistently intrude upon my practice, and which come so regularly and without any formal invitation, fall into three main groups. There are variations on the themes that are involved, and in the content that they cover. The one thing that they have in common is to increase the irritability and reactivity of the mind.
For me, these thoughts include several variations on the themes of:
The first of these automatic thought processes involves blaming. I can aim this at myself or other people. Blame is apportioned for faults that are both real and imagined. When this happens I find that I am have a tendency to relive my past, whether several years ago or only a few seconds in the past, and then to attach blame and responsibility to others, and occasionally myself, for whatever it is that has happened.
Teenagers are stereotypically experts at this, “If you hadn’t picked up the milk by the cap it wouldn’t have mattered that I did not put it on properly.” Etc. It is far too easy to blame the government, or insist that “they should do something about it”, than to take action or responsibility for our own behaviours.
Teenagers are stereotypically experts
It is much easier to complain that our employers are too demanding, than to look at personal time management systems. Blaming also involves passing the buck for my actions, it is not my fault that this or that happened. I am entirely innocent of all responsibility. The food manufacturers are to blame for my excess weight, it has nothing to do with my lifestyle choices or lack of exercise.
The dog ate my homework taken to an extreme and highly professional level.
Mending is a thought process in which I try to fix the things that have gone wrong, or try and sort out events before they have even had a chance to happen. One of my favourite forms of mending involves predicting the future, usually expecting some unlikely “major” disaster, and then working out how to avoid it. More often than not, the result is that I make myself more and more anxious, which of course generates the probability of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is clear that this form of mending goes a long way beyond any sensible level of disaster planning.
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that it is a good idea to think through the flaws and problems related to any plan or undertaking that I might be considering. Getting that presentation just right, rehearsing the difficult conversation with a relative, taking the time to check the route that I am going to follow to get away on holiday. This works better when it is done in a planned, constructive way and not as a ruminative, cyclical process that generates more problems than it solves.
Past experience tells me that the future events upon which I expend so much energy, have such a low probability of actually occurring that I am just wasting my time and effort. I make a trivial mistake and I assume that I will be immediately fired from my job, even though I have been told that I am a valued employee.
<become aware of the things that I do well and not just focussing on those that I do less well.
The more constructive approach would be to look at the things that I have achieved in the past, both good and bad, allowing myself to become aware of the things that I do well and not just focussing on those that I do less well. Armed with this self-knowledge I can change how I choose to behave, right here and right now, in order to try and bring my preferred future closer to reality.
There is no benefit and even less sense in trying to mend things that went wrong in the past. It is a much better idea to use the self-knowledge gained through mindful practice, to work out how to prevent similar events from happening in the future.
When such intrusive thoughts arise, I find that it is best to make a mental note of them, especially when they are recurring thoughts, and then to return to thinking about them later when I am in a position to use my intellectual functions to solve problems. I find that this is best done away from the meditation cushions, when I have the time to reflect on the thought content that has arisen during practice.
In his book Unlearning Meditation: What to do When the Instructions Get in the Way, Jason Siff describes a process of Recollective Awareness Meditation. Here the idea is to be mindful of the thoughts that arise in meditation, but without getting lost in them, bringing the attention back to the posture or breathing at regular intervals so as to maintain focus and concentration.
At the end of each sitting any thoughts and emotions that have arisen are noted down for review, either by the meditator or for use in discussion with the teacher. When the same content comes up repeatedly, it is more likely to be something that will cause problems in daily life, and if it is noted down it is more easily available for analysis and can reveal many of the hidden beliefs that might get in the way of practice. The result is that many people find that their thinking mind quietens down.
It might be more accurate to call this misinterpreting. It often involves attributing meaning to other peoples’ behaviours, as well as trying to solve all kinds of intellectual puzzles. Interpreting is the third form of thinking that I find gets in the way of my ability to be mindful. I find that this mode of thinking is often subtle and hard to spot until it is well established.
It can take many forms, perhaps starting with a simple worry about whether I am doing the mindful practice correctly, or fretting about why my friend did not immediately answer my text, all the way to attempting to unravel the meaning of life, or trying to find a unified theory of everything. Or the really important question that my daughter asked about penguins and knees.
This mode of thinking is often subtle and hard to spot until it is well established.
At the beginning of my mindful practice I found it very difficult not to chase after these thoughts, and like many other people with whom I have discussed this, I soon discovered that pursuing thoughts of this kind helped me to develop an ever more irritable mind.
This irritability arises partly because I give full rein to the content of these thoughts, generating a great deal of ill will, and partly because it has not been particularly edifying to realise just how much time I waste blowing trivial events out of all proportion or fretting over imagined sleights.
These thought patterns also arise in my daily life, sometimes with positive benefits and sometimes not. Thinking and planning have a place in anyone’s life, helping to solve genuine problems and to move life in the direction that it is intended it should go.
Unfortunately there are times when negative experiences from my earlier life continue to cause both me, and other people, difficulties. They are not limited to those periods when I settle down to formal periods of meditation practice. However, it is at those times when I deliberately set out to quieten my mind, that I find they come rushing in, like some misguided knight in shining armour riding to the rescue, trying to fill the void left in my busy mind by silence and attention.
With continuing practice, coming back to the focus of my meditation over and over again, and by carefully following the instructions that I had been given, I have slowly become better able to remain in the present moment. Over and over again, I have been able to use the combination of the calming and focussing effects of my meditation practice to gradually become more mindful. To become much better at unhooking these thought processes when they gain a foothold in my mind, and am even starting to be aware of them as they are trying to gain attention.
Such repeated, slow practice has done a great deal to improve my ability to offset the negative effects that these addictive thinking styles can produce.
I have developed more focus and clarity the longer I have continued to practice, this means that I am now in a better position to be able to catch myself when my thoughts start to wander in unhelpful directions. This has even started to happen while I am in the thick of daily life, resulting in clearer communication and better understanding of the situations in which I find myself. I can react to what is actually happening in the present moment rather than allowing distorting past experiences to hold too much sway.
My friends and loved ones have seen a difference as I have become much calmer and thoughtful, less reactive to events and more proactive in my life style. As I practice mindfulness more and more I am starting to see the clear relationship between all things, particularly at the mental level, where thoughts, emotions and behaviours are all intermingled.
All in all, the benefits of a mindful practice have been considerable, even without the widely touted physical benefits, I would recommend that everyone should give it a try.
For those of you who might be interested in looking further into these ideas:
Online mindfulness meditation and mindfulness resources:
Jason Siff’s website: