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Guide on “Thoughts” During Your Meditation Practice

Raman Mittal: Co-Founder of Idanim
by Raman Mittal
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Biggest Mistake People Make in Meditation

I am not able to concentrate during meditation
I can’t keep my mind still and calm
Thoughts keep running through my mind and I can’t focus
I am unable to STOP thoughts

Sounds familiar?

Expecting your thoughts to stop.

This is inarguably the biggest mistake in meditation that people make when they start their meditation practice. The bad news is: you can’t stop your thoughts. The good news is: you don’t have to stop your thoughts.

Is meditation not about stopping thoughts, or being in a state of thoughtlessness?

Not really. Meditation is a state of awareness/presence that arises through consciously (intentionally) paying attention to the present moment (and all that exists in that moment, including our thoughts) while being non-judgmental.

Just like your salivary glands are meant to produce saliva, your mind is supposed to produce thoughts. Several researches indicate that our mind produces between 50,000 to 80,000 thoughts in a day. The reality is you can not stop your mind. Thoughts, anyway, are not a problem. Mind (thoughts) have a role to play. All the great things we create are a result of thought only.

The problem lies in our “deep identification with,” “judgment of,” and/or “attachment to” our thoughts, which are often about remembering, planning, fantasizing, worrying, and repenting (aka past and future). Our attention is too occupied in our thoughts (which is often referred to as “unconsciousness”). The problem lies in taking our thoughts too seriously. In our meditation practice, we take a step back and see thoughts like a stream of clouds and watch them without getting attached to them. When we witness them as clouds, our deep identification with them loosens, giving way to a sense of ease, calmness, and relaxation.

Meditation practice helps us create a distance (space) between our thoughts and ourselves. At that moment, our state of awareness/presence is akin to the sky in which these thought clouds come and go presenting us with a choice - to engage or let it pass. Because of this space between us and our thoughts, our actions/choices come from a place of wisdom, not reactivity. We also become aware of the futility and uselessness of most of the content produced by our minds.

But these thoughts sometimes are not pleasant. What do I do in meditation if unpleasant thoughts persist?

Pleasant or unpleasant - you observe them as they are. Sometimes sounds around us are not pleasant, sometimes our energy is lethargic, sometimes we don’t feel healthy. The key lies in maintaining some distance, watching them with non-judgmental awareness. Just know that they are unpleasant. Just knowing is enough to disengage with them. The moment we desire to push away unpleasant thoughts, we have engaged.

Does that mean thoughts will not reduce?

When we watch them with non-judgemental awareness, and when we allow them to be, we will notice that there is some empty space between 2 streams of thoughts. This space keeps expanding which is deeply relaxing where deep peace lies. The intensity and speed of our thoughts weakens in this process.

More importantly, as we rest in this space, we will notice that even if there are thoughts around us, we don’t get affected and triggered as easily. The key is not to push your thoughts away. The sheer act or desire of not having thoughts is indirectly pushing them away.

In my own practice, I have observed that our mind becomes calmer just after a few minutes of practice. When I say calmer, I mean the mind chatter gets reduced a bit. Even 5% reduced chatter is very calming and peaceful. There is an enhanced sense of awareness, presence, peace and ease almost every time. But there are days when our mind is super-active and we don’t feel grounded andat ease. I have realized that it is better to just acknowledge that waterfall of thoughts, and keep coming back to your body and breath for some rest and relaxation. Trying too hard does not work. It is actually counter-productive.

I keep getting lost in thoughts in meditation. What should I do?

We often use some anchor like breath, body or sounds to ground ourselves in the present moment. They are like our home base where we come back whenever we find ourselves lost in thoughts. Remember, it is not in your control NOT TO get lost in thoughts. It is very normal and natural to wander away in meditation. It is futile to expect the mind to stop producing thoughts. Whenever we realize that we have wandered away in thoughts, we gently acknowledge it without getting irritated, and bring our attention back to the anchor like breath or body or mantra. It is that simple. Don’t get irritated if you find yourself getting lost in your thoughts again and again. When we bring our focus on any of the anchors, we (our attention) temporarily become free from this constant stream of thoughts about the past and future. This disidentification, getting out of thoughts is like waking up from a dream. This is the present moment. This is the moment of mindfulness. There is a different kind of aliveness in this moment of mindfulness.

But I could not stay with my breathing or any other anchor even for a few seconds.

That is fine. Absolutely fine and normal. Start with just 1 breath. It does not matter whether you stay with your breathing for 1 breath or 10 breaths, stay with your body for 1 second of 10 seconds, the key is to keep coming back to the anchor when you realize that you are lost in your thoughts. That moment is very important. That is the moment of mindfulness. You will notice that these mindful moments of waking up keep on increasing as your practice deepens.

Why do I feel restless when I watch my thoughts?

First of all, congratulations on watching your thoughts. Is it not liberating to know the content of our minds? Is it not a great step to know what kind of repetitive (and also useless) content drives most of our lives, choices and relationships? Before this, we never even knew what was happening in our inner-space that would drive most of our actions and relationships. When we practice meditation, we see the content of our mind. It is certainly not pleasant when we see so many unpleasant thoughts triggering stress, anxiety, guilt, fear, inferiority, sense of lack within us. Till now, we have been either ignoring or suppressing them. It clearly has not helped much otherwise you would not be feeling restlessness. The only way to get rid of restlessness is by knowing and watching with your non-judgmental awareness. Just stay put. Don’t run away. Don’t suppress. Don’t ignore it.

What to do when there are strong emotions?

There are times when we feel very strong emotions and they completely occupy our attention. During those moments, it is better to drop every other anchor and give all our loving & kind attention to that emotion, whether it is anger, fear, grief, guilt, hatred, anxiety.

What do you mean by over-identification?

Have you ever experienced being completely reactive to some person or any situation, only to realize that you lost it completely till some calmness and sense returned back? When we are not aware of our thoughts, they practically run our life. We keep getting triggered by very random and trivial thoughts. A memory of a very distant past, that may not have any relevance today, will hold the potential to spoil our entire day. Now, memory is not a problem. Unconscious reaction emanating from the memory is what spoils our day, and our life. The only way to free ourselves from this unconscious reaction is to see this unconsciousness/over-identification.

What do you mean by “lost in thoughts”?

Our attention is almost always occupied in our thoughts. Have you ever felt that you did not taste the food you are eating at all? You were lost in your thoughts. Have you realized that you reach from one place to another without even realizing and noticing the journey? You were completely lost in your thoughts. Have you realized that sometimes (or maybe many times), you don’t listen to the other person at all and were completely consumed in your thoughts? It is like dreaming with your eyes open. These thoughts are often about some past event that may have happened yesterday or 10 years back, or about future - either worrying about something or planning/fantacising about some future event. Can we agree that whatever happened 5 minutes back or 10 years back, it is just a memory (or thought) in our brain? It may not be relevant at all in the reality of the present moment. Can we also agree that whatever we plan or fantacise or worry for the future is also just a thought? When we are mostly lost in our thoughts, we miss to live life as it is, we completely miss the quality and taste of life and all the amazing things it has to offer.

So how to get out of this dream/lost in thoughts state?

Use any anchor like breath, body, sounds, or sensations to bring your attention back to the present moment, to come out of this dream state. It is a constant practice and you will notice that you are “waking up” more frequently then before. This is mindfulness. This is awareness.

Should we not try to extend the gaps between the thoughts with hard concentration?

Look closely. The sheer act of trying too hard, desiring to be thoughtless is a thought in itself. You are not present at that moment. It is just one part of the mind (now a meditative mind: no pun intended!) trying to control another part of the mind. Try to stop thinking about mangoes and you will start thinking about them. When you get lost, you don’t know when you got lost. However, there is a sudden realization that you got lost in your thoughts. When that realization happens, acknowledge it and gently come back to the anchor.

Just to conclude, meditation is not about becoming thoughtless. The intensity and volume of your thoughts will automatically decrease on their own when you practice mindfulness correctly (so don’t worry about it). Just practice with a sense of sincerity, kindness, curiosity, and non-judgmental awareness without worrying about results. Gently and softly come back to the anchor without getting irritated when you realize you are again lost in your thoughts. It is actually that simple.

If you are still wondering where to begin, Idanim offers guided meditations for beginners curated and instructed by our globally renowned meditation teachers.

Download Idanim on App Store and Play Store today.