Sunday, August 7, 2016

How to Handle Thoughts during Meditation?

Common Misconceptions

Here is the most common misconception we hear in regard to meditating:

"I've tried to meditate, but I can't stop thinking! It's so frustrating, so I gave up. My mind is just too busy."

The second most common misconception we hear is:

"I've tried to control my thoughts, but I can't do it. I try to force myself to be positive, but it's frustrating because no matter how hard I try, negative thoughts creep in."

These misconceptions become objections. Objections become reasons to stop meditating. And, another person ends up saying 

"I tried to meditate, but it doesn't work for me."

We will try to address these misconception, which stop so many people from practicing mindfulness in their daily life.

What Buddha Says

In the Buddha’s Discourse on the Forms of Thought, he discusses five ways of dealing with the disturbing thoughts that arise either during formal meditation or as you go about your daily life:

1.       Think positive

The first method he suggests is:

If some unskilled thoughts associated with desire, aversion or confusion arise and disturb the mind,  you should attend instead to another characteristic which is associated with what is skilled . . . It is like a skilled carpenter who can knock out a large peg with a small peg.

The Buddha is saying here that to dissipate a negative thought you have only to think of something positive. As a carpenter removes a large peg with a small one, you could dissolve a heavy, negative thought with a small compassionate idea. If you are thinking about someone who has hurt you, instead of aggravating the thought by telling yourself that they always do bad things, try to remember the occasions when they have been kind. If you suddenly have an irresistible desire to buy something very expensive that you cannot really afford, instead try buying a small present for somebody and replace greed by generosity. If you are waiting for someone who is late, instead of immediately thinking that this person has no respect or love for you, question whether there is some good reason for the delay.

2.       Know what hurts

The second method of dealing with disturbing thoughts is:

Scrutinize the peril of these unskilled thoughts by thinking: 'these are unskilled thoughts, these are thoughts that have errors, indeed these are thoughts that are of painful results . . . It is like a woman or a man, young and fond of adornment, who if the carcass of a snake or a dog were hanging around their neck would be revolted and disgusted and throw it away immediately as soon as they noticed it.

Here the Buddha is telling us to think about the consequences of our thoughts and to realize that certain types of thought will cause pain. You might think that you are telling it like it is, that you are right and everyone else is wrong. Repeating this to yourself, you become more and more self-righteous until by the time you meet whoever is concerned you are very angry But as soon as you attack someone verbally they will get defensive, even if you are in the right. You hurt yourself by getting worked up in this way and you also hurt others.

This method is about letting go of certain thoughts because you see their painful outcome. The Buddha’s example is rather macabre but he is trying to make us realize the difficult nature of certain thoughts. When we are lost in our thoughts we see only that they are justified. With awareness and attention, we are able to see the negative effects of these thoughts.

3.       Distract yourself
The third method is:

Bring about forgetfulness and lack of attention to those thoughts . . . It is like a man who, not wanting to see the material shapes that come within his range of vision, would close his eyes or look another way.

This method seems to go against the general message of the Buddha, who tells us to be aware and mindful. However, the Buddha is pragmatic and knows the mind well. Some thoughts are too strong to overcome directly and the best way to dissipate them is to change your focus (although in order to do this you first have to see that you are having these thoughts).

If you are fabricating negative unrealities, distract yourself in a healthy way by going for a walk, talking to a friend, reading an absorbing or inspiring book. Do something that will help your mind to change its focus and in that way dissipate the energy and power of negative thoughts.

4.       Question your thinking

The fourth method of dealing with disturbing thoughts is to:

Attend to the thought function and form of these thoughts . . . even as it might occur to a man who is walking quickly: 'Now, why do I walk quickly? Suppose I were to walk slowly?’ It might occur to him as he was walking slowly: 'Now why do I walk slowly? . . . Suppose I were to lie down? . . . This man, having abandoned the hardest posture, might take to the easiest posture.

This method brings space and possibilities to your thinking. It helps you look into the root of a thought, it encourages you to question the form of the thought. Why are you thinking what you are thinking? Could you think about something else? Do not ask psychoanalytically but experientially: 'What happened a few minutes ago to lead me to think this?' The Buddha encourages you to then question and be creative with alternative trains of thoughts that could make your life a lot easier.

5.       Push it away

The fifth method recommended by the Buddha is:

By the mind subdue, restrain and dominate the mind . . . It is like a strong man who, having taken hold of a weaker man by the head or the shoulders, might subdue, restrain and dominate him.

This method might seem to be in opposition to accepted psychology that you should not repress anything in your mind. Buddha proposes, if everything else fails and you continue to have disturbing and dangerous thoughts, and then stop them by pure will power as a last resort when other methods, reviewed before, are failing to achieve the results.

The example the Buddha chooses illustrates that your mind is stronger than you think. We tend to believe that our thoughts are stronger than we are ourselves, but that is not so. You cannot reduce yourself to just one thought; you are bigger than this and have more potential. One way to apply this method gently is to say to yourself: 'Let it go for now.’ Each of you can also find creative ways to deal with your own disturbing thoughts. First be aware and have the intention to do something, then creative solutions will arise naturally.

Our minds have so much scope and potential. Why should we let ourselves be burdened by our thoughts? Let’s keep in mind one of the Buddha’s verses:

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as a deed;
The deed develops into habit
And habit hardens into character. 
So watch the thought and its ways with care
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.

Practical Recommendations

The previous session gives a perfect outline on different approaches of dealing with intrusive thoughts during the meditation and actually even more so, in your day-to-day life. However, meditation session is usually a time-limited focused mindfulness activity which calls for special tricks and efficient ways to deal with the thoughts, commonly considered as significant obstacles.

When you start the meditation, you should highlight to yourself that you have no expectations from the desired outcomes for the coming session, and everything you are going to experience is equally good. If you set a target to become thoughts-free, inability to achieve this goal will cause frustration and sadness, basically the opposite to what you were looking for. 

It’s easy to say that when meditating one should focus on the breath and release thoughts as they arise, but it’s incredibly difficult to do. During mindfulness meditation you keep your attention on your breath, but you want to be fully aware in this moment. So you still take note of sounds and smells, aches and pains, all that makes up the present moment. When thoughts arise the instructions are to notice them, let them go, and return to the breath.

But to just blot out thoughts without paying attention to them would not be very mindful at all. Don’t ignore your thoughts… Instead, work with them.

As a thought pops up, acknowledge it, let it go, and return to the breath. Don’t carry it out to a conclusion. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t try to add reason at this time. Notice that you’re thinking, that your mind has pulled you away from your awareness of this moment, and place your attention back on the breath.

Never try to resist them. In fact, welcome your thoughts, good or bad. Whatever you are thinking about during meditation; simply become aware of your thoughts, and observe them like an outside observer. Imagine your mind as a movie screen where you are watching the events unfold.

Once finished, the movie scene (your thoughts) will naturally move on without you having to make a conscious effort. Never force yourself to stop thinking or to stop allowing thoughts to come into your mind.

Labeling the thoughts may help you release them. If you’re sitting stewing about something you should have done differently this morning, label it judging and let it go. If you’re thinking about what to make for lunch or what to do this weekend, label that planning and return to the breath. If you’re taken by thoughts of beaches and the sun, label them fantasy and bring your attention back to the present moment.

The point is never to not think. The point is to remain aware of what is going on in and around you right now. Too many scattered thoughts can drag you away from the moment and cheat you of your present experience. Acknowledging thoughts, labeling them, and coming back to the present, to the breath, can help you stay centered and focused.

As the thought comes, smile and embrace it, observe it non-judgmentally, thank it for coming and invite a next one, letting it go. Always remember that YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHT, you are just observer who is witnessing the thought.

Another trick, which helps some people is imagining your thoughts as an endless line of salespeople standing at your front door, peddling everything from vacuum cleaners to cell phones – none of which you are remotely interested in buying. Every few seconds, a new salesperson knocks on your door and won’t stop until you open up. So you open the door, look them in the eye, smile them and say “No thank you” or “Sorry, I am kind of busy right now”.

Another ancient secret is that our minds do not process negative commands, i.e., if I tell you to “not think of a pink elephant”…what is the first thing your mind will do? Think of a pink elephant! In the same way, the more you tell your mind to stop thinking, the more thoughts will enter, even faster than before.

A thought is nothing more than a vibration of energy. Too many thoughts will deplete our energy levels, and thus, the more you think about your thoughts during meditations, the more bothered you will feel and the more frustrated you will become.

Meditation is about letting go; letting go of all your efforts, all your anxieties, all your stresses, and simply dissolving into a deep state of rest and relaxation. Relax; enjoy watching your thoughts; keep focusing on your breath. Whenever you find your mind wandering, gently smile to yourself and in a nurturing and compassionate manner, bring your mind back to your breath. Focus on breathing in deeply and slowly, and then breathing out, making large rounded circles.

The worst thing you can do is trying to blame yourself for inability to relax and wasting your time for the useless activity which brings you more stress and dissatisfaction than you were before the meditation started.

Instead, you can try some spontaneous twists dealing with unwanted and unexpected thoughts during the meditation session, using some visualization attempts. For example, your peace and tranquility World during meditation enters your screaming neighbor. Do not push her away in disgust, embrace her and have a sensual dance with the music clip you like. If you feel the physical pain the knee, imagine the black aura around the wound to get covered with magic flowers, sucking the negative energy and pain out. So, play it out and find what works for you.


I would like to summarize briefly our discussion with short final statements:
·         Make sure you are alone in a quiet place to meditate. Unplug the phone. Make sure no one is going to disturb you.
·         Do not have any expectations, entering the meditation session. Sometimes the mind is too active to settle down. Sometimes it settles down immediately. Sometimes it goes quiet, but the person doesn't notice. Anything can happen.
·         Do not try to deny, push, process, or reject the coming thoughts. Observe, acknowledge, label them, and let them go.
·         All people are different. There is no single approach fitting all, so experiment and find what works for you. It may be a visualization, music background, or suitable guidance (voice and content).
·         Be easy with yourself. Meditation isn't about getting it right or wrong. It's about letting your mind find its true nature. Love yourself unconditionally and acknowledge all successes, even those you might consider them minor. 

Sources and Additional Information: