by Eric Harrison.

How to manage troublesome thoughts.

The success of any meditation usually depends on how well you handle the thoughts, sensations and feelings that are disturbing you. Trying to ignore or suppress them usually doesn’t work well for very long.

Below, you’ll find eight different ways of managing thoughts. You probably won’t need to use all these strategies, but it will be helpful to be familiar with them, and you’ll likely find yourself using two or three in any longer meditation.

Note however, that these are not strategies that need to be used all the time. They are tools for troublesome thoughts, rather than thoughts in general.

For much of the time, you may not need to do anything at all with your thoughts beyond acknowledging their presence, or letting them flow by. If they’re particularly pleasant or interesting you may even entertain them, curious to see where they lead or how they support insight and relaxation.

However, for those times when thoughts become overwhelming, your:

  • first option is to refocus on your object.
  • The second is to name the distraction.
  • The third, is to name the accompanying emotion.
  • The fourth, is to use imagery to objectify the thought.
  • The fifth is to look forward and to look back — to review the unfinished thoughts of the day
  • The sixth is to break from one obsession by moving to another
  • The seventh is to identify your underlying state of mind
  • and the eighth is to boost the pleasant thoughts, sensations and feelings to counteract the negatives.

Let’s explore these in greater detail.

Every day thousands of thoughts come and go through our minds. We don’t have to get rid of them. We’ve all had billions of thoughts in our lives and they’ve all gone — with little effort on our part.

When we’re calm, we can easily attend to those few thoughts that are important and let the rest come and go of their own accord.

When our emotions are intense however; if we’re worried or angry or sad we cling to our thoughts. Emotion makes the mind sticky and makes each thought seem more important than it actually is. We may try to focus on something as simple as the breath but get constantly caught up in thought instead.

The first and simplest strategy when you get distracted is to refocus on the body. To tick the thought off and let it go. This only works for thoughts which are relatively unimportant, but of course, most of our thoughts are like that.

However, some thoughts are more demanding. In this case we need a stronger technique. We consciously name the distraction. You bring it out of the shadows into the full light of consciousness. In order to identify the content of a thought, you have to break the conversation you are having with it. When we see it in context, for what it really is, it becomes so much easier to discard it.

So, if you find you are not able to focus well while you meditate, you stop, and ask yourself: “What is this?”, “What is troubling me?”, or “What am I thinking about?”; and you give yourself a few seconds to clearly identify the content of that thought: work, so and so, food or money — or whatever it is.

If the thought is really troublesome you could also ask yourself: “What is the emotional charge behind this thought?”, or “What is this feeling?” and name that. It could be worry, or anger, or shame. You’ll find that seeing an emotion clearly tends to neutralise its unconscious effect on you. Don’t be too hasty; see the thought and its accompanying emotion objectively. Don’t even try to push them away. It’s just a thought, just an emotion. You can’t stop them coming up in the mind but you don’t need to over-react to them.

There is a certain feeling that goes with seeing a thought objectively. It’s as if the thought hangs in space — a short distance from you. It’s out there — you’re back in here, grounded in your body. You’re not entangled in the thought even though it continues to call you, and you can direct your attention away from it if you so choose. A thought will usually fade away once you neutralise its emotional charge. But don’t worry if it continues to hang around. You don’t have to get rid of thoughts completely, and you shouldn’t even try. It’s quite enough to see them for what they are and to disconnect from them. A train of thought may continue of its own accord as you meditate, but if you don’t interact with it, it will naturally fade over time.

Use Imagery

You also have further options. Once you’ve identified a thought you can use imagery to help you classify it. If you do need to remember that particular thought, you can imagine writing it on a list or sticking it on a notice board. Or you could pigeon-hole it, or file it away in a filing cabinet. If it’s junk you can throw it in the rubbish bin or back into the stream of consciousness. These are ways of giving a few seconds to a thought, but not a minute or more.

By noticing thoughts dispassionately we’re actually putting your mind in order. You notice which thoughts are important and which ones aren’t. Which ones can be discarded and which one’s need to be dealt with fairly quickly.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

If you find it difficult to even start a meditation you can use a little technique I call Looking Forward, Looking Back. Before trying to focus fully on the breath or body you review the main thoughts in your mind at this moment. These will usually be related to your immediate past and future. So you ask yourself: “What have I been thinking about in the last few hours?” and you pick out the main four or five issues, no more. Spend a few seconds identifying each one of them and then go back and review each of them two or three times.

You could imagine seeing them in a row or on a list. Similarly, look into the immediate future. This is what I call Looking Forward. Many of our habitual thoughts are about what we have to do in the next few hours and we often worry unnecessarily about this. Looking Forward is like listing events in a diary so you know what is coming up. When you look forward and back resist the temptation to think at depth about any of those issues. Remember that awareness is about passively observing thoughts, not actively interacting with them. You’re just trying to see what the main thoughts are — and their relative importance. That is quite sufficient. And as soon as you can, or simultaneously if possible, focus on the sensations of the present.

Obsessive Thought

Sometimes, you find you’re totally fixated on one problem and nothing else gets a look in — certainly not the breath. Paradoxically, one way to break an obsessive thought is to move to another obsession. I suggest you label the first obsession and its emotional charge. Then, if you move to another obsession this will help pull you away from the first. And then, move to a third. You can usually find at least three things to obsess about.

Then move back and forwards between them. Thirty seconds or so, on each one. For example, your obsessions could be: daughter, money, health. Then back to daughter, back to health, back to money, and so on. Each time you shift, you are training yourself to let go an obsession at will — and also, to see it in some perspective.

People often ask me “How do I know the difference between seeing a thought objectively and just thinking about it?” As a rule of thumb, you can ask yourself: “Am I aware of my body as well?” You may be obsessing about something, but can you still feel your breath and your body relaxing at the same time? If you can, this means you are not totally consumed by that thought. It is taking maybe 50%, but not 100% of your attention.

Often, an obsessive thought or a physical pain, or an overwhelming emotion won’t disappear but you can still gradually relax in its company, if you also focus as well as you can on the body. Remember, you’re not trying to resolve or vanquish a problem — you’re just trying to see it in perspective. You can be sure that if your body is more relaxed there will be less adrenaline and less emotional stickiness in your system. As your mind calms down the problem will gradually become easier to manage.

Name the State of Mind

Awareness is about being able to see any thought, sensation or emotion objectively. It is quite an achievement to be able to do this even part of the time. And yet, sometimes it is not a particular thought that is troubling you; it is is more you’re underlying emotional or mental state. So, awareness also means being able to notice your state of mind — you recognise when you are sleepy, or agitated, or daydreaming, or exhausted — quite independent of any thoughts. Realise that you can also name any of those states, and see it objectively; it’s just exhaustion, it’s just agitation.

Awareness, means to see and accept yourself just as you are, in this moment. Even if you are in a dreadful state — sick, miserable and lost — to see yourself clearly can have almost miraculous effects. It helps you to let go the entrenched tensions and over-reactions, and to put things in a better perspective. You can find a way of being at peace with where you’re at and of accepting what you can’t change, in this moment at least.

Conversely, awareness will greatly enhance the positives in your experience. The lovely and healthy thoughts, sensations and feelings that also arise in your meditation. These are not distractions of course — these are why we actually meditate — but you can make them stronger by naming them. So, look for those feelings of pleasure, flow and comfort in your body. Consciously acknowledge when you’re mind is still, calm, clear, content. Recognise the fleeting moments of love, or joy, or enchantment. Notice the positive thoughts, or memories or images by bringing them into the full light of consciousness for as long as they are there. Enhancing the positives is the long term solution.

Trying to ignore or blank out thoughts is never a good long term strategy. You can do it occasionally but the results will always be fragile and largely dependent on circumstances being right. Looking for extra support is what makes people unnecessarily reliant on groups. On the other hand, when you try to notice thoughts objectively, there’s always a danger that you can get sucked back into them.

Awareness is a subtle balancing act. You neither ignore thoughts, nor entertain them. You notice a thought for just long enough to see it clearly, but not for so long that you get drawn into it. After a few seconds, no more, you deliberately let that thought go and direct your attention back into the sensations of the present.

When you focus well, you temporarily escape your thoughts. But you can’t stay fixed on one thing for ever. You find real tranquility through self awareness. This means you don’t have to escape your thoughts. Like a gazelle amongst lions you can live safely in their midst. Thoughts will always come and go in consciousness, but you don’t need to be at their mercy. In time, awareness will also give you an unimaginable freedom to direct your mind wherever you want it to go —and it all starts with identifying the distractions.