Have you ever sat down to meditate, watched your thoughts whirling around your mind -- and felt like maybe you were meditating "wrong?" Well, guess what? You're not doing anything wrong. When thoughts arise during meditation, it's completely normal. Minds think. That's what they do. Thinking is part of the mindfulness meditation process.
In mindfulness meditation, we're training ourselves to develop a healthier relationship with our thoughts. And we do this by including the thoughts in our meditations -- turning our attention toward them in a way that we're not grasping onto them -- not indulging in, judging, analyzing, or evaluating them. What we're doing, instead, is acknowledging our thoughts by gently noting or even "labeling" them with a word like "thinking" or "wandering" -- and then coming back to the body (noting any feelings and sensations that might be associated with the thoughts), and returning our attention to the sensations of the breath.
It's this process of focussing on our breath, turning our attention to our thoughts as they arise, disengaging from them once we've noticed our attention has drifted to them -- and then gently coming back to the body and our breath that helps us cultivate a healthy relationship with our thoughts.
Science has actually shown that noting thoughts helps regulate the emotional circuitry in the brain, creating a calming effect in the body and providing separation from the thought. Calmly and equanimously noting a thought (that part is key) -- we're less likely to get caught up in emotional reactions.
To give you a practical sense of how noting works, here's a meditation play-by-play from one of my personal sits earlier this year... I find the technique of "labeling" thoughts quite helpful. Let me know if you find it helpful, too!
February 19, 2014
I sit down in the wicker chair outside. Place a small, rectangular pillow in the small of my back. Slip out of my flip-flops and feel the dirt beneath my feet. Pressing "start" on the Insight Timer app on my iPhone, I leave the phone on the ground as the bell DINGS.
Closing my eyes, I adjust my posture. Straighten my back. Intertwine my fingers and place my hands in my lap.
I hear the sounds of birds singing. Feel the warmth of the sun on my body. The wash of air on my face from the gentle breeze.
Scanning through my body, I feel a slight tug of sadness in my heart -- a dull ache pulling at my chest. I sit with it for a moment, allowing it to just be. Holding space for tears if they need to fall. But they don't....
The tug fades. I hear an airplane overhead. My mind starts to wander.
I bet the cat's going to escape at some point. He's going to bolt out the door when one of us isn't careful. I wonder if he'll keep running, or if he'll want to come back...
I notice myself worrying and say so in my mind.
And then I redirect my attention to the sensation of my breath. My chest rising and falling. I can feel my heart beating in my chest. My body feels warm.
I notice that I'm conscious of being conscious of what's happening during this meditation...
I notice a desire and a sense of striving to remember what's happening as it's happening. I start thinking about the possibility of picking up my notebook and starting to write down my stream of consciousness as I'm experiencing it. Or maybe record myself talking into my iPhone mic to capture my thoughts.
No I shouldn't do that. That doesn't feel right...
I notice I'm judging what "right" means -- that I'm using the word, "shouldn't." Then I notice I've drifted off again.
The call of a crow in the distance. My toes throbbing in the heat. The feeling of my beating heart beat. My body feels warm. Too warm. I want to take my fleece sweatshirt off. I wonder how much longer it'll be before the bell rings and if I'm going to swelter in the heat -- or if I should just stop meditating and take my sweatshirt off.
I notice how I want to squirm and move away from the discomfort. How every molecule of me wants to move. But I remain still. I feel the impulse again to start writing my thoughts down. I notice my desire. The fear beneath it....
A siren wailing off in the distance. A trash truck dumping cans down the street...
I can feel my pulse quickening -- my heart beating faster. The sun's heat no longer feels soothing but suffocating...
I take a deep breath. Then another.
The sound of cars whooshing by on the freeway off in the distance. More birds singing. My belly rising. The red and blue amorphous blobs I can see behind my eyelids. The breeze brushing against my face.
Then my insides feel quiet. Like they're floating.
The sound of the bell reverberating. Relief. Then anticipation. I pause for one last deep breath.
And open my eyes.
A version of this post first ran on www.intentiondaily.com