Standard mindfulness instructions invite you to pay attention to your thoughts and emotions — but not to get caught up in them.

Various metaphors are employed to illustrate this idea. Watch your thoughts like:

  • clouds floating across the sky, or
  • leaves flowing down a stream, or
  • the passing carriages of a train, or
  • bubbles which pop like balloons, or
  • notes which you can file away.

When it comes to emotions you’ll often be reminded that you don’t have to do anything about them. Just let them come and go, arise and pass.

These narratives are pervasive. You’ll find such messages gracing the social media accounts of meditation and mindfulness teachers (along with self-help gurus and spiritual ‘masters’) everywhere.

You might also be admonished not to get caught up in your thoughts and emotions, to stay present, or to practice watching, witnessing or observing. The real or true self, apparently, is above all this human messiness. And, for peace of mind, you should be too.

All these ideas are encapsulated succinctly in variations of the following:

You are not your thoughts.
You are not your emotions.
You are not your body.
You are the unchanging awareness behind them.

These are seductive ideas.

They speak to our desire for solid ground.

And when waves are crashing all around it’s understandable that we would reach out for terra firma, even if that ground is as ephemeral and ungraspable as the idea of some unchanging awareness.

So this is one of the dominant ideologies to be found in contemporary mindfulness. But that doesn’t make it the only ideology. There are other options.

I actually find it quite easy to detach from my thoughts and feelings in the various ways described above. And doing so leaves me in a serene, almost imperturbable state of mind.

However, that doesn’t last, and although it’s peaceful, it doesn’t seem all that meaningful.

In fact, it seems a little flat and lifeless, like a chip without salt, or one of those hugs which is really just a pat on the back.

I often suggest that students of meditation treat their thoughts and emotions like good friends, or even babies in need of tender, loving attention.

I make this recommendation because I believe that what our thoughts and emotions need is not our most objective, detached or clinical attention.

What they need is to be heard and felt.
This is a primary human need.
And our thoughts and emotions, which are parts of us, share this primary need.

How, I would ask, might a child feel if its parents were to offer it detachment rather than connection, or objectivity rather than love? I think there would be something missing in such a relationship.

I have found too, that my most memorable and meaningful experiences in meditation aren’t those in which I floated along like a duck on a pond, but those in which I was totally immersed in a cascade of sensation; sometimes intense, sometimes subtle.

Awareness is awareness. It does not care whether you’re immersed in something or hovering above it. It still works in the same way. It sees clearly. But when you go through something, instead of around or over it, you emerge with experience, a knowing, and increased confidence.

It feels like something new has been birthed from within. There’s the satisfaction of having survived, or done a good job. There’s a sense of completion. Maybe I like it tough. Maybe I prefer the hard road. But I suspect there’s something in us all that requires this kind of catharsis.

I have a very hard time falling asleep at night but man this meditation knocks me out... I have never made it to the end because it works every time. I’ve tried everything before this; sleeping pills, sound machines, herbs, etc. but nothing has worked as well as this. I’m so grateful.

Jessie

I love this one. I’ve never heard the ending. I’m always asleep before it’s over!!!! I highly suggest this one if you can’t fall asleep at night or have a sleep disorder like I do. I always fall asleep with this one...

Ashley