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!