I’ve written a number of articles on thinking: specifically, on recognizing that thoughts are a normal and inevitable part of any meditation practice and that a mature response to them involves adopting a stance of acceptance and curiosity.

In this article I aim to provide a framework for exploring thoughts further. In other words, I’ll provide some concrete means of enhancing your awareness — and acceptance — of thoughts.

Hopefully you’ll agree that thinking is a useful mental function. You might also recognise that the quality of your thinking is reflected in the quality of your life. It pays to think well. And it pays to make time for quality thinking. Meditation can provide a useful space for this type of reflective thought.

Finding a healthy balance

The goal of a functional meditation practice is not — I would argue —  to avoid thinking altogether, but to ensure that your thoughts better serve your needs. This means striking a delicate balance.

Sometimes it is appropriate to ruminate on an issue until it is resolved. At other times it is appropriate to let go of recurring thoughts and move on.

Not every problem can be amended through contemplation. If you find yourself repeatedly dwelling on problems over which you have little control you might just be burning up mental energy. There’s not much point ruminating on things that thinking can’t change! In such instances, it’s more useful to direct your thoughts in more constructive directions. You might need to investigate the thinking process itself.

The key is to find a balance that works. Thinking your way through problems is a valuable way of finding solutions. But too much thinking can exacerbate problems.

Part of any skillful meditation practice involves learning to identify when your thoughts are serving your interests and needs – and when they are leading you down a road to nowhere. If you can make this distinction, then you have already won half the battle.

How do you find this balance though? What are the necessary ingredients or methods?

The following five ‘orientations’ are ways of examining mental activity in order to make better distinctions: to make better judgments about how you think and to better understand the thinking process.

Introduction to the ‘orientations’

There are numerous ways in which we can relate to our thoughts in meditation. Typically though, thoughts are assumed to be problematic, and we are encouraged to pay them little attention. We’re told to temporarily put them aside, or to let them go and to redirect our attention to the breath whenever we notice them.

Alternatively, we may be asked to let thoughts come and go of their own accord, or to witness them as they pass — like clouds in the sky. Rarely, however, are we encouraged to permit them to be an integral part of the meditation process and we’re almost never encouraged to investigate our thinking in depth. And to spend time in meditation “caught-up” or lost in thought is almost always prohibited (as though one could prevent that from happening).

I’d like to suggest that all of these approaches have their pros and cons, and we shouldn’t be too hasty in assuming that there is some best or optimal way of treating our thoughts. There are, of course, many different ways of relating to our thoughts, and we can only assess the value and relevance of these  through continual exploration.

Here then, are a number of ways to begin exploring your thoughts; to befriend, welcome, understand and work with them — and to see what actually happens when you get curious about what’s happening in your own mind.

Approach 1 — Content Orientation

By default, thoughts pass through our minds automatically, compulsively and largely unconsciously. In other words, we’re thinking, but we may not even know it. This is not necessarily problematic (but it can be). Furthermore, just because we are largely unconscious of our thinking, that does not mean we are entirely unconscious of it. By reflecting back, we can pick up certain details.

The first step then, is to occasionally reflect back on what you’ve been thinking about. By doing so, you’ll usually get some sense of the content of your thoughts: (work, family, relationships). In other words, you will pick up a bit about what you were thinking about (as opposed to the nature of the thinking process or the qualities of the thoughts themselves). This is a good place to start, and a foundation for the more nuanced observations that may follow.

Approach 2 — Process Orientation

Awareness of the thinking processes we’re engaged in is a step up from awareness of the content alone. It’s a more developed form of meta-cognition. However, it need not be complex. You can start by making some simple distinctions.

  1. Is your mind busy and active or restful and quiet?
  2. Is your attention drawn primarily to thoughts, or to sensory phenomenon such as sounds or physical sensations?
  3. Are your thoughts about the past, present or future?

If you can answer this kind of question without difficulty, you can then begin to make some finer distinctions. For example, if thoughts are oriented around the future, what kind of process are you engaged in: planning, rehearsing, dreaming,  worrying, fantasising, concern, catastrophising.

If they are oriented around the past, are you: reflecting, reminiscing, reviewing?

You could also note whether your mind was relatively focused, or relatively open and receptive. Alternatively, you might be engaged in some kind of sorting or processing of mental content, or perhaps mired in confusion or doubt.

Approach 3 — Effect Orientation

Many people fail to notice how their thinking impacts their body, their breath, their emotions and their mood. Thinking may seem confined to the head, disconnected. In other words, we view our thoughts in isolation. In this approach then, notice whether your thoughts effect the way you breathe and what you feel. Notice whether particular thoughts cause contractions in different parts of the body (e.g. the face, the arms, the chest, the legs).

You might also note whether thoughts trigger an emotional response. Emotional responses can be quite subtle, particularly positive emotional responses, so it may be helpful to notice if you experience a sense of gratitude, concern, friendliness, warmth or appreciation; for example, in relation to thoughts about a friend.

Finally, we may enquire about whether it’s possible to feel quite relaxed despite the presence of thoughts.

Approach 4 — Quality Orientation

In this approach we look at some of the qualities of our thoughts which may usually go unnoticed. For example, we can look at:

  • Volume: Do thoughts seem loud or quiet? Are they traveling alone, or in packs?
  • Pertinence: Are your thoughts relevant / appropriate? Are you thinking about something too much, or too little?
  • Location: Do your thoughts seem nearby or far away?
  • Tone: Do they seem angry, ashamed, commanding, critical, or peaceful, soothing and reassuring?
  • Impact: Do they demand obedience or action? Are they compelling, or shy and skeptical?
  • Importance: Do you assume the thoughts to be true? On what basis?
  • Connections: Does your thinking seem rational, sensible, logical, linear, or fragmented, vague and dreamlike?
  • Texture: Do your thoughts stick around and hold your attention — like velcro — or slip by, as though made of teflon?
  • Familiarity: Are the thoughts normal, mundane, trivial, or are they surprising, insightful, strange. Are they repetitive, looping thoughts, or do they lead somewhere?
  • Stance: Are you engaged in a dialogue, a conversation, a soliloquy. Are you speaking to someone else, or yourself. Are your thoughts speaking to you? Are you trying to convince someone?
  • Degree of Control: Do thought arise spontaneously, compulsively, accidentally, or is your thinking more deliberate and directed? Or perhaps vague, hazy and dreamlike?

Metaphors can be very useful in exploring these qualities. For example, are thoughts buzzing around like flies at a BBQ. What’s the mental traffic like? (Congested, impatient, peak-hour). If the mind were a zoo, what kind of animals would be occupying the zoo?

Do thoughts have ‘voices’ or personalities. Are there voices you are more and less familiar with?

Give them names if you like. Identify the various characters that visit.  Grumpy, Mr Obnoxious,  The Worrier, and so on.

Approach 5 — Purpose Orientation

Have you ever wondered what the purpose of your thinking is? This is another aspect of thinking that is often hidden from awareness. Thinking is going on, and we might assume we know why we’re thinking about a particular thing or in a particular way. And whilst there might be an explicit purpose to a train of thought, are there also implicit or hidden reasons for thinking in certain ways?

It can be useful to explore whether thoughts act as some kind of defense mechanism: a rationalisation or justification for certain behaviours, a way of protecting ourselves from exploring deeper feelings, or a way of reinforcing a (superior) sense of self.

You can start exploring this aspect of thinking by asking why you’re thinking (at any given moment), and what purpose the thinking serves. By examining the reasons behind the thinking process, we can better understand how thinking can be helpful in our lives.

One model suggests that thinking can serve one of the following six purposes:

  1. Decision Making
  2. Problem Solving
  3. Understanding (by making associations, judgments and conclusions)
  4. Generating Ideas / Creating
  5. Setting Goals / Planning
  6. Ruminating / Purposeless Thinking / Filling Up Space / Daydreaming

Keep in mind that these ‘orientations’ are meant to be catalysts for further exploration and refinement. They’re designed to inspire you to make your own distinctions, rather than as preferred or correct ways to examine thought processes. Next month I’ll present another five interesting ways to explore your thinking.