In a previous article I introduced five ‘orientations’ for working with thoughts. In this article, I continue that project by offering another five ways to develop greater acceptance — and understanding — of the thinking process.
The purpose of these strategies is to allow you to disarm the type of thoughts which cause or exacerbate stress, or which you find threatening, overly self-critical, harmful or hard to take. I’ve heard people describe their thoughts as snipers, devils, snakes and other similarly ‘dangerous’ critters. If you feel like you must engage in some kind of battle with your thoughts, then these strategies are intended to be the diplomats or peace-keepers which help you to negotiate some kind of truce, cease-fire, or better still, a harmonious co-existence with the voices inside your head.
Before we continue however, there’s one important thing I’d like to reiterate. Namely, that it can be almost impossible to disarm thoughts whilst you’re on the battlefield. The stresses of such a situation are too great. Negotiating a peace treaty is very difficult when there are bullets whistling around your ears. When your blood is boiling retreat is probably the best option.
In other words, if you find yourself highly agitated. If your breath is ragged and your emotions are running high, then you will probably find it very difficult to think clearly, or indeed to think rationally at all. Your thoughts will tend to be about one thing: destroying, or escaping from your enemy. When this is the case, these ‘orientation’ may not prove so useful. It may make better sense to use a meditation technique that you are comfortable and familiar with, and that you know will help to calm you down. On the other hand, learning how to view your thoughts in a more skeptical and introspective fashion can be useful at any time. Ultimately, you’ll need to be able to use such techniques at any time, not just when you are calm.
You can review the first five orientations here, otherwise we’ll continue with:
Approach 6 — Nature of Thoughts
In this approach we investigate neither the content, the thinking process, nor the effects our thoughts have on how we feel but the very nature of thoughts themselves. This is a kind of reductionist approach; where we endeavor to break thoughts down into their constituent parts. Rather than looking for meaning, we’re just looking at mechanics. We pay attention to the nature of the sensations and experiences that make up thoughts. For example, you might:
- Notice whether a memory feels different from a discursive thought and how it might be possible to make this distinction.
- Notice how long thoughts last. Do they come in different lengths, or sizes?
- Notice the volume of the thoughts, both in terms of how many there are moving around at once, and whether they seem loud or quiet.
- Investigate whether you ever get a sense that there are thoughts milling about in your subconscious? Can you perceive a thought as it forms, but before it manifests as a thought?
- Simply take a step back and try to figure out how you experience thoughts. How do you perceive them? As sounds, pictures, movies, voices, feelings, patterns, memories, computations, or discussions?
- Ask whether thoughts arrive in the mind fully formed; as words, ideas, sentences, paragraphs or arguments? Are they grammatically correct? Who checks the punctuation? Do you ‘see’ them, or hear them? Or do they appear as images, photographs, or movie clips? Are they a succession of ‘stills’ or moving pictures? Maybe you experience them as physical sensations, or as feelings, movements, or remembered sensory experiences.
- Try describing your thoughts in detail: What do they feel like? Where do they occur? How big are they? What do they look, smell, taste, or sound like?
- Ask yourself what a thought is comprised of? What makes a thought a thought? Do they have edges or boundaries, or some kind of location? How do you know what a thought is and isn’t? How do you know when a thought starts and ends?
Approach 7 — Relationship Orientation
Of all the approaches I’ll introduce, this one is probably the most critical, for it’s the relationship we have with our thoughts, I believe, that has the most significant impact on how we experience and process them. Note that many of these strategies, and particularly this one, apply equally well to emotions, memories, physical sensations, sounds, or indeed, any other aspect of our experience.
If you typically regard thoughts as something to avoid or fear, see if you can begin to regard them as opportunities for insight or friendship.
To start, you might notice whether you trying to avoid thinking about certain things, and to notice when levels of resistance are high, when they escalate, and when they lessen and diminish. You might also reflect upon what you might fear (about thinking). A common fear is that by allowing thinking to go on thoughts will spiral out of control and lead to uncomfortable or overwhelming feelings. Can you give yourself the opportunity to test this assumption? Perhaps past experiences have led you to believe that certain patterns of thinking are counter-productive; but could it be true that that what has been true in the past may not be absolutely true? What happens when you alter your attitude towards thinking? What happens when you welcome, permit or allow thoughts a place in your head? What happens when you willingly give them plenty of space, when you listen to them attentively, with interest and curiosity? What happens when you stop trying to stop, avoid or fight your thoughts; when you let go and leave them be?
In meditation you have the opportunity to explore new ways of relating to your thoughts. And of course, if a thought (or emotion) becomes overwhelming, you can always direct your attention away from it if you need to.
Some questions to consider:
- Are you trying to bury or push away a particular thought? What is it about that thought that seems problematic? What do you assume about that thought?
- If this thought were a friend, would that friend be pleased to see you? Would they feel welcomed, acknowledged, heard?
- If this thought were a child, how could it be reassured, soothed, loved.
- If your thoughts seem harsh, critical, angry or disappointing, is it still possible to treat them with kindness.
Whether you are caught up in, or detached from your thoughts to some degree is also an interesting area to explore.
Approach 8 — Belief Orientation
By default we believe our thoughts. We tend to assume that because we’ve thought it, it must be true. For example, how would you respond if the following thoughts formed in your mind? “I can’t focus. I’m no good at meditation. My mind is all over the place. This is boring. I’m getting more and more agitated.” Such internal commentaries are often highly judgmental. Furthermore, they usually only represent partial truths. If we take the time to examine such thoughts the attitudes and feelings associated with them often diminish surprisingly quickly.
On the other hand, beliefs can be notoriously sticky: it can be quite hard to change, and somewhat confrontational to challenge someone’s beliefs. The ability to question one’s beliefs, however, is a critical skill when it comes to mental health. Unchallenged beliefs and assumptions can tie us in all kinds of knots and have far reaching consequences. We may not immediately see how a dearly held belief can be the factor underlying significant or continued trauma and difficulty.
A simple strategy to check on the relevance of a thought is to assign it a value on one of various scales. For example you could ask:
- on a scale of 1 to 10, how important is this thought; from critical or vital (10) to trivial, mundane, or irrelevant (1).
Alternatively, you could ask whether a thought is helpful or unhelpful, critical or kind.
Approach 9— Function or Style Orientation
This orientation is quite similar to the Purpose orientation. It looks at the same kind of processes from a slightly different angle, characterising thinking on the basis of whether it is:
The following diagram illustrates how we experience these three different modes of thinking, and also suggests what the function(s) of each mode might be.
Note that there are many more models used to describe thinking modes. For example, the following slightly more detailed model suggests that we can:
- Observe: we can observe other people, as well as the workings or our own minds.
- Reflect: we can replay events in our memories, and arrive at new perspectives.
- Solve: we can take immediate issues and problems and find solutions or understanding.
- Plan: we can plan deep into the future and create backup options.
- Focus: we can sustain attention on something important
- Imagine: we can use our imaginations to run through how something may play out.
Approach 10 — Further Orientations
These are not the only orientations one might adopt in exploring thoughts. You might also:
- trace thoughts back (to some perceived origin)
- watch how thoughts form, link and proliferate
- investigate how thinking changes dependent on energy levels, moods and mental states
- search for meaning
- look for the underlying causes (perhaps an emotion) of your thoughts
- contemplate ideas
- note or label thoughts
- attempt to watch, witness or observe thoughts without interference
- analyse thoughts in order to ascertain what they say about you and why they arise
- spontaneous inquiry, perhaps involving a reassessment of the ways in which you have been describing your experience during meditation
What’s the best way to explore these thinking orientations? You may be tempted to try one or more out the next time you meditate: to put your thoughts under the microscope and examine them, as though under laboratory conditions. This is certainly possible, but it may not be the most effective way to get to know your thoughts. Why? I’m going to digress a little bit here in order to explain.
You may be aware that whenever you are invited to focus on the breath, you change it, or it changes. It’s very, very difficult, if not impossible, to be aware of the breath, without modifying it in some way. You’ll tend to breathe more deeply and slowly, and you’ll tend to hold the breath a bit.
The same thing will inevitably occur when you are invited to focus on thoughts. The patterns of thought that arise won’t proceed as they normally would. You’ll cut thoughts off, truncate them, or analyze them in some relatively unusual or contrived way. As such, you’ll be prevented from becoming familiar with the ways in which your mind actually works. You’ll just be learning about how your mind works when you meditate.
Therefore, my recommendation is that you meditate without trying too hard to become aware of your thoughts. You may sit with an intention to let thoughts proceed as they would normally; without being too concerned on whether you have a meditative outcome (i.e. get relaxed, remain aware of your thoughts etc.) Instead, you just let your experience unfold spontaneously.
Once you’re done meditating, however, you might spend some time reflecting (and perhaps writing down) on what you can remember from the meditation. What happened? How much time was spent engaged in thinking? Did thoughts continue indefinitely and uninterrupted, or did you find yourself focused on other things? Did you become relaxed? This is where you might apply these orientations most effectively.