Monthly Archives: September 2008

Two Poems on Thoughts During Meditation

Prodigal Mind

When my mind
returns to the breath
there is such a sense
of homecoming
such a celebration of
this most perfect union

that I would not be surprised
if the invitations were sent out
the band hired
and the cake decorated

were there only enough time
before my wayward mind
sets off to wandering again.

– Stephanie Noble


In the River of Thought

In the river of thought
may I rest like a rock
in the riverbed
cleansing the water so that
downstream it will be clearer.

If I’m not ready to be a rock
unchanged by thought-stream,
if I feel more akin to the flotsam
tossed about by the rapids
of thoughts, then at least

May I keep my head above water
and see the wide world around me
beyond the thoughts in which I swim.

May I find my weary way to the shore
and rest on the banks of the river.

May I discover that I am not the river
and bear no shame for its stench.

May I look upstream and downstream
and see that its course is endless,
that it neither starts or ends with me.

May I know not to dip my bucket
in the river and offer the foul broth to others.

And then someday may I feel awake enough
to re-enter the river for periods of time
and sink deep into the rocky riverbed, fully aware,
able to breathe in the vilest thoughts
with cleansing compassion.

May some day the river itself be so pure
that swimming in it will cause awakening.

– Stephanie Noble

Meditation: Coming into Relationship with our Thoughts

There are various ways to be in relationship with our thoughts that can be helpful in meditation. One many people use is to imagine the mind as clear blue sky and thoughts as clouds floating through. Another, is to think of thoughts as a river or sea. As beginner meditators most likely we are submerged so deeply in our sea of thoughts that we don’t know which way is up. But if we relax a little we will naturally rise to the surface, to air. A practiced long distance swimmer comes up for air on a regular basis. And as meditators we learn to do the same, coming back to our breath over and over again as we swim in a sea of thoughts.

Sometimes we can have our head above water for long periods of time, perhaps floating on our back, enjoying the spacious air and vast sky. We are still with our thoughts. They sparkle on the surface of the sea or are the waves that we body surf. And if we submerge into them, we know which way is up, and come up for air on a regular basis.

Both these analogies remind us that thoughts are naturally arising phenomena. We train ourselves to be in relationship with them, not to push them away or scold ourselves for having them. We can even let go of the idea that these are ‘our’ thoughts, freeing us from judging them, feeling ashamed of them or intoxicated by their brilliance. There are other swimmers in this sea of thoughts! Other minds through which these thoughts, or ones very much like them, flow.

If visualizations like these don’t interest you, perhaps you can embrace the physical manufacture of thoughts – all those electrical impulses in the brain. How much of your identity is attached to the specialness of the way your heart beats or other inner workings of your body? The brain makes thoughts. That’s what it does. Of course, the thoughts are affected by a certain set of causes and conditions, and are filtered through your inherent and acquired set of habitual patterns and perceptions, but still and all, they are just thoughts. Understanding that this is part of the brain’s function, that this is what the mind does, releases our need to control our thoughts, and frees us to simply notice them as they arise into our awareness and pass away.

Finding a way to be in relationship with our thoughts is key, because thoughts are such a dominant part of our moment to moment experience. And because thoughts will often pull us away from simply being in this moment — into remembering or revising the past or planning for or worrying about the future — becoming aware of them and knowing how to gently return to the breath is central to developing a meditative practice.

Meditation: Back from the Future

I am in one of those periods in life where it is very easy to get caught up in anticipating the future. Recovering from hip replacement surgery, getting around with the aid of a crutch, having strict limitations on my mobility, it is challenging for me not to look forward to when I will be walking normally without a crutch, driving a car, bending more than 90 degrees, and experiencing the pain free benefits for which I went through the surgery in the first place.

When such leaning into the future thoughts become so obvious, it’s an excellent opportunity to really notice them as they arise and to sit with them a bit.

In doing so, I see that these anticipatory thoughts involve comparing my current experience with others. This other experience may be an imagined future one, as in this case, but it could just as easily be some remembered past experience, or the imagined experience of someone else whose life seems vastly superior in some way.

By noting that my thought process is in a comparing mode, I have brought a clear awareness to my mind activity. This awareness isn’t judging the activity, but if I am suddenly judging, then hopefully I can become aware of my mind switching into a judging mode. These modes are in constant movement throughout our days. We don’t have to switch them off, we just benefit by becoming aware of them.

Now I could at this point just note ‘comparing’ or ‘judging’ and return to the breath. But I can also choose to notice if there is any emotion attached to this thought. And in this case I was surprised to find there was. I discovered an underlying fear or anxiety that seems to ask the question, “What if?” In my case: “What if I am the unusual patient that doesn’t fully heal, that continues to need a crutch, continues to feel pain forever?”

It doesn’t matter how rational these “What if?” scenarios are. If we are to have an honest and open exploration, we need to accept what is true for us in this moment. Sometimes the mind rushes in to offer supporting evidence for the fear, fueling it. Or, conversely, our mind might argue with the fear, belittling the experience. But rational arguments hold no sway with emotion, they just add the new emotion of frustration or shame on top of it.

The challenge is to simply acknowledge an emotion in our current experience and sit with it. In our sitting with it we might then discover a physical component to the emotion — a tightness in the chest or tension in the jaw, for example. If so, we can sit with the physical sensation and breathe into it. Which ultimately brings us back to the breath, where we focus our attention.

Why bother with all this awareness?
Well it might save us and those around us from a lot of unnecessary suffering!
In the usual course of events, a thought trips a whole series of actions and reactions. Staying with my current case, I am caught up in anticipating a few weeks down the road when I will be returning to normal activity. The emotional component is a small underlying anxiety, as noted, but more noticeably an eagerness to get the show on the road. This could quite easily lead to over-reaching my current physical boundaries in this moment out of a restless impatience, which could cause injury. It could also make all my interactions with others a little testy or grumpy, as I complain of my current fate. Instead of savoring the wonderful visits from friends and family and being incredibly touched by the tender care of my wonderful husband, I could be making both their lives and mine a living hell. I’m sure there are many other possible results as well, but you get the idea.

By paying attention and noting our thoughts, we don’t get rid of them, but they are somehow derailed from their causative roles. They exist but they have lost their powerful hold on us. We can be with them with spacious awareness, acknowledging them but not ruled by them.

And it all starts in meditation, noticing that we are thinking, then noting the mental mode of the thought (planning, remembering, comparing, judging, fantasizing, problem solving, etc.) Then we have the option to see if there is any emotional component, then any physical sensation that accompanies it. Then we simply breathe into the physical sensation.

Our attention always comes home to the simple but miraculous core of our physical existence: the rise and fall of the breath.

Precious Thoughts

Sometimes we get attached to our thoughts in meditation, and if we are reminded to come back to focusing on the rise and fall of our breath, we get grumpy. We were in the middle of a brilliant idea, a creative solution, a lovely visual feast – and the teacher wants us to come back to the breath? Boring!
If this feels familiar to your experience, remember that you have almost all day and night to think or dream anything you want. The mind runs free! But in this short period of meditation, we are training our minds to concentrate. So no matter how glorious a thought is, the breath is more important.
Why? Because this training is the means to end suffering. And what thought could be more valuable than that? By learning to bring ourselves back the the breath over and over again, we are making it possible for ourselves to find this still core within ourselves at some future time when we may desperately need it — when our minds are careening full speed trying to cope with a crisis, and our emotions are on heightened alert and everything seems absolutely impossible. In that situation, I am guessing there is no past thought, no matter how entertaining or brilliant, that will rush in to save us. But knowing the way back to the breath will.
So that’s the biggest reason that we welcome anything that brings us back into awareness of the breath, whether it’s the teacher’s words or another sound in the room. And if what brings us back is simply our own recognition of the fact that we are lost in thought, a little inner celebration is not out of order, as long as it doesn’t send us off into another train of thought!

Thoughts During Meditation

For most of us the challenge in meditation is to find our way back from deep within a tangled thought in order to focus on the breath. At first it might seem that the goal is to get rid of thought, but this is not the case. It is not a policing that is required, but a quiet awareness. Thoughts are what our brains do. They are not bad, and trying to evict them from our experience even for a short length of time is not only unnecessary but counter productive.

Thoughts are just part of our experience, like emotions and sensations. Through meditation practice, awareness increases over time so that we are able to more clearly distinguish all of these aspects of our experience. We can see our thoughts coming and going. We can see the associational strings that link one thought to another, luring us deeper and deeper. We can see the nature of our thoughts, whether they tend to be more about planning, problem solving, remembering, remodeling the past, complaining, finding something or someone to blame, fantasizing or catastrophizing. We can see thoughts that come up again and again, as we tell ourselves the same story over and over. We can see our judgments about our thoughts.

While it is useful to know that this kind of awareness is a direct result from simply setting the intention to sit and be with our experience, it is important to understand that this awareness comes from regular practice over the course of time. To have an expectation of immediate clarity is setting yourself up for disappointment, and may cause you to give up on the practice.

Getting lost in thought is a natural part of meditation. A beginner meditator might feel that he or she was lost in thought the whole time. This is why sitting in a group with a little guidance is valuable. The teacher may occasionally remind you to come back to a focus on the breath. Practicing in this way helps us to incorporate the teacher’s voice into our own daily practice, so that we remind ourselves to return to the breath.

Every time we return to the breath is a celebration of sorts. It is not a time to scold ourselves for having been lost. It is a time to be grateful for returning. And each time we return to the breath we are paving the way there, making the path a little clearer, wider and easier to find. So that when we are in a crisis in our daily life, we can more readily find the path to our source of equilibrium. So, in a way, the more often we are lost in thought and find our way back, the better!