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.