1. a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.
You probably came to meditation with a lot of assumptions. And even if you’ve been meditating for years, you probably still have a lot of assumptions — about what meditation is and isn’t and how it works best.
Some of these assumptions might be about what you should do with thoughts:
- stop them
- witness them
- acknowledge them
- let them go (gently)
- observe them
- notice them
- detach from them
- challenge them
- question them
- be aware of them
- name them
- label them
- befriend them
- don’t engage with them
- don’t get caught up in them
Have I missed anything? Yes. I didn’t include:
- let them go on, just as they are, or
- do nothing about them
These might be assumptions you have about what NOT to do with thoughts.
Where do all these assumptions come from? And what is their purpose?
Have you ever wondered why you are often asked to bring your attention back to the breath when you notice yourself thinking? And have you ever noticed what happens when you let your thinking go on?
If not, I encourage you to explore these questions for yourself. You might be surprised by what happens.
You may find that some of your ideas about meditation are helpful, but that others are unnecessary, outdated, limiting or just untrue (for you). You may find that your assumptions place constraints on what you are willing to experience or even what you think of as “meditation”. And you may find that these constraints limit your freedom to explore and experiment. If you don’t question them, your assumptions may prevent you from learning about new ways to be with — and to calm — your mind.
Interestingly, some assumptions mask deeper assumptions. What assumptions are being made, for example, if you feel the need to observe, witness, detach from or question your thoughts?
- that thoughts will go on forever if you don’t consciously stop them
- that when you’re thinking about the past or future you are not present
- that thinking — if left unchecked — will spiral into endless repetitive loops
- that thinking about work prevents you from relaxing
- that peace of mind is not possible while your mind is racing
- that thoughts create or exacerbate stress
- that most of your thoughts are largely useless, trivial or mundane
- that thoughts need to be positive for meditation to work
- that you need to find the ‘off switch’ for the brain in order to feel good
- that thoughts need to slow down
- that thoughts lead to rumination
- that thinking will trigger depressive episodes or overwhelming emotions
And behind those assumptions, there may be the assumption (or worry) that some thoughts will always be problematic or bothersome.
This might be true, but how do you know? How can you develop the capacity to work with your thoughts in skillful and creative ways unless you allow them some uninterrupted air time (at least some of the time)?
Interestingly, whenever you assume that your thinking — or your mind in general — is problematic, you will probably relate to your thoughts with some degree of aversion. This creates a vicious circle, in which the aversion itself tends to perpetuate a problematic relationship with thinking.
For example, say you’ve had a busy and stressful day. You sit down to meditate, craving some inner peace, but your thoughts continue to jump all over the place. They just won’t settle. You add to the cacophony by referring, perhaps slightly disparagingly, to this activity as monkey-mind.
What happens next? Do the thoughts suddenly stop because you’ve labelled them monkeys? Does this kind of commentary encourage you to be more or less interested in your thoughts? Does it encourage a more or less accepting internal attitude?
I’d like to suggest that even though the term monkey-mind might sound harmless (or even accurate), describing your mind in such a way will engender a bias (perhaps slight or invisible, but a bias nonetheless) in which you automatically devalue, distrust or dismiss your thoughts to some degree.
Test this out for yourself. When you meditate, notice what sort of biases you bring with you. What happens when you adopt a more accommodating attitude towards your thoughts? What happens when you remind yourself that thoughts aren’t all bad? If you’re like most people, you probably meditate in order to see things from new perspectives, to gain insights into problematic situations and to discover new and creative ideas. If you value these kinds of cognitive realisations then you’re probably more likely to have them. Conversely, if you push your thoughts away, these insights may remain elusive.
Suppression and Repression
Just to make things clear, what I’m suggesting here is that you can safely allow your thoughts to go on in meditation. You don’t have to try and stop or observe or acknowledge them. It’s okay to get caught up in them. Thoughts aren’t that dangerous!
Of course, you can stop your thoughts if you want to. You can try to observe them too. But you don’t have to. Nothing needs to be done automatically, or out of habit. Know that you can choose how to relate to any given thought. You can also give your mind a chance to settle of its own accord.
Perhaps you think this all sounds a bit radical: “I want peace-of-mind. Why would I want to let my thinking go on as normal?” Or perhaps you’re happy with the results you get from focusing on the breath or body (largely to the exclusion of thoughts and emotions). Or maybe you’re wondering why you would even try such a strategy when almost everyone suggests you should do otherwise?
I’d like you to consider that any form of meditation in which you direct your attention away from thoughts and towards some other ‘approved’ object (such as the breath), no matter how gently, is a form of suppression.
In psychology, suppression is the act of stopping yourself from thinking or feeling something.
Some people argue that if you are naming, labelling, acknowledging or being mindful of your thoughts then you are not suppressing them. I would disagree. If you label a thought, that thought tends to get interrupted. It doesn’t continue as it normally would. The thought therefore, is stopped. In other words, it’s suppressed, at least to some degree. In fact, just the act of noticing a thought tends to have a suppressive effect. For example, if I ask you to stop right now, and notice your very next thought, you may find that you don’t think at all. Or you may find that you have the thought “What’s my next thought going to be!” Whatever happens, you’re unlikely to be thinking in the unconscious or semi-conscious way in which you normally think (what neuroscientists refer to as the activity of the default mode network).
Furthermore, if you engage in such ‘concentration’ practices for long enough you may begin to automatically repress your thoughts and — by association — your emotions and sensations. In other words, suppression becomes automatic and unconscious. You don’t even notice that you are suppressing your thoughts. This can leave you feeling peaceful and undisturbed. Concentration becomes a refuge, a security blanket from the vicissitudes of normal life. But do you really need such a refuge? I suspect that a mature person can ride the waves of their thoughts and emotions for the most part. A refuge may be required occasionally but it doesn’t need to be your default response to each and every thought that comes along.
Don’t get me wrong, suppression can be useful. As a mental strategy, it allows you to concentrate without being distracted by every passing thought. In life, it’s often necessary, and in meditation, it can be a fairly reliable way to access relaxed and peaceful states of mind.
It can also be used effectively if you’re feeling fragile or overwhelmed. Suppression provides a psychological defence against the thinking patterns and emotions which might otherwise throw you completely off balance. It works like a fuse, allowing you to ‘short out’ rather than blow up. Or you might choose to suppress certain thoughts and feelings because you don’t (or don’t think) you have the strength or psychological skills to manage them.
Suppression: the downsides
We live in a time and culture in which suppression seems to be the de facto response to pain. You might rely on entertainment, news and trivia to suppress your boredom. You might reach for painkillers at the slightest sign of discomfort. Drugs are prescribed for a range of normal emotions and some strains of pop-psychology suggest that you should always be upbeat, happy and positive.
It’s no surprise then, that you might use meditation and mindfulness for the same purpose. But whether repressed or suppressed, the things you try to avoid remain ever present and alive. They will create conflict and tension in your meditation practice — and your life — as long as you try to keep them at bay.
If repression becomes a habit you may not even be able to recognise the ways in which buried thoughts and emotions are affecting or harming you. This subterranean material may distort your perceptions of yourself and others, the world and even your memories of the past and expectations for the future. It will probably prevent you from learning, growing and understanding yourself more fully. And it will likely remain unresolved, contributing to increasing frustration as you cycle through repeating behavioural patterns. These repressed thoughts and emotions may even become more difficult to identify and express, making you more reactive or manifesting as physical tension, numbness and ultimately depression or illness.
Suppressing your thoughts and emotions is hard work. It’s exhausting. It may not seem that way whilst it offers a respite from some feeling you don’t want to face. But in the long term it will wear you down.
As Paul Mc Carroll said in a recent tweet:
@MELBMEDITATE trying to get rid of thoughts and feelings is like trying to force a ball underwater. They only bounce back with more force.
— Paul Mc Carroll (@MindfulBelfast) March 14, 2017
A new way of meditating
So, instead of trying to calm yourself down in meditation by continually directing your attention away from thoughts and emotions, let yourself think freely. Let your thinking go on. This is how you can meditate better by thinking more.
Interestingly, when you stop habitually suppressing your thoughts you might make some suprising discoveries. There may be a growing sense of liberty and freedom, an unexpected confidence and ironically, a greater sense of control. The energy you were using to keep things down is now avaialable for constructive use.
By allowing thoughts into your meditation practice you may also find that they change, slow down and occasionally stop of their own accord. You didn’t actually need to play the traffic cop.
The standard assumption is that you can only access peace of mind by focusing your attention away from thoughts. But this isn’t so. You can also become peaceful through thinking. Or by thinking through a difficult situation. Peaceful states of mind can arise spontaneously, without the need to control, direct or manipulate your experience. And these organic states of mind are often far more satisfying than the calm that you induce through suppression and control.
Perhaps the greatest reward though, is the realisation that you have the capacity to tolerate your thoughts and emotions. They usually aren’t as problematic as they may have seemed. When you run away from something it seems like a threat. When you turn towards something you begin to see it more clearly. Over time, your thoughts become less and less threatening, more and more interesting.
In fact, it’s possible to spend 90% of your meditation session ruminating, reviewing to-do lists, rehashing conversations and preparing meals — and to still feel relaxed throughout. In my opinion, this capacity to be with your thoughts is at least as useful as the ability to block them out and far easier than trying to artificially induce a state in which you are witnessing or observing thoughts from a distance.