Many of us are drawn to meditation in the hope of learning how to escape from the incessant chatter of our own minds.  We recognise that it’s often the overly critical or anxious voices in our heads that keep us on edge or unable to sleep. I would suggest though, that these voices are only problematic because they are driven by — and in turn generate — emotions which we find difficult or uncomfortable.

The simplest and most common meditation techniques are basically invitations to direct our attention away from these sources of stress; so that we can find some respite from them, and a sense of being balanced or at ease.

This can be very helpful, but ultimately, I believe that we’ll need to actually look into the sources of our stress; so that we can learn more about how our minds function, and how we might be able to work with, rather than against, our thoughts and emotions.

With this in mind, we’ll do two new meditations this week; one focusing on thoughts, and one on emotions.

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Mindfulness of Thinking

Surprisingly, many students who have spent years trying to stop their runaway minds, find that their minds stop of their own accord when they give themselves permission to think freely. That’s one of the main premises, or strategies, for this week’s meditation on thought. You’ll find a lot more on the rationale behind this meditation in the article 12 good reasons to let yourself think in meditation, and you can try it out yourself in the accompanying guided meditation on thoughts.

Meditating with Sadness, Fear and Anger

Most of us don’t have particularly harmonious relationships with our sadness, fear and anger (nor most of our emotions) and it may seem rather strange to even talk about them in the context of meditation. Aren’t we meant to feel happy, peaceful and calm? Of course, most of the time we will tend to feel more peaceful and calm when we meditate, but there is no escaping our emotional lives. Emotions are an essential, undeniable part of being human, and we’ll tend to be calmer and happier to the degree that we’re able to welcome and work with all our emotions.

In the following meditation we actually welcome the big three (sadness, fear and anger) into our meditation, and explore what happens and how we can skillfully use these emotions in the service of becoming calmer and more balanced in their presence.

Please remember that your task is not to manage your emotions, but to become a fluid and agile conduit through which emotional energies can flow freely. It doesn’t matter whether your emotions are pleasant, uncomfortable, mild, or intense — what matters is that you use your skills to welcome them, channel them, and honour their vital information. Remember the twin mantras for all intense emotions: “The only way out is through” and “This too shall pass.” — Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotions.

For more on working with emotions you may refer to the article Mindfulness of Emotions.

Working skillfully with thoughts and emotions

Our mental and emotional lives often take a back seat to the busyness and activity of our social and working lives. We get fixated on what we have to do, where we have to be, or on the distractions of TV and entertainment. When this is the case we may not find the time to really tune into what’s going on in our heads or bodies. We remain somewhat removed from our thoughts and emotions. This is a recipe for confusion, anxiety and eventual depression. It also keeps us wired, hyped-up and unnecessarily tense, partly because we don’t really know what’s going on inside.

Meditation is an opportunity to reconnect with these untended parts of ourselves. Instead of treating our thoughts and emotions as distractions or discomforts, we welcome them as lost friends. This is what it means to be mindful — to know (and to be able to describe) thoughts and emotions as they arise.

Here’s’ a list of just some of the things you’ll experience when you meditate. See if you can identify them (and others) throughout the day. Doing so has a regulatory effect. By identifying what you are thinking and feeling your brain tends to reassess and reevaluate. It helps you to find more appropriate responses.

Sensory distractions

  • The sound of passing traffic
  • An itchy nose
  • A stiff neck
  • Feeling warm, or cool
  • Aches and pains
  • A gurgling stomach
  • The impulse to swallow, or move

Thoughts

  • Am I doing this right?
  • What’s for dinner?
  • I mustn’t remember to…
  • I wish my mind would shut up!
  • Shit! I forgot to…
  • Oh no, I’m missing …….. on TV
  • Rehearsing  a conversation

Memories and images

  • Random images or colours
  • Snapshots from the past
  • Movie clips
  • Fantasies
  • Dreams
  • Replays of conversations or arguments

Mental states

  • Focused
  • Foggy
  • Clear
  • Dreamy or drowsy
  • Busy

Moods and emotions

  • Feeling annoyed by thoughts
  • Getting restless from sitting still
  • Worrying about money, kids, work
  • Reliving a moment of anger

Welcome the Distractions

In the context of meditation ‘distraction’ doesn’t deserve the negative connotations that we normally associate with it. When we lose focus that’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean we’re a bad meditator and it doesn’t really mean that we’ve been ‘distracted’ (in a pejorative sense) either. It just means that our brain has brought something else to our attention. In all likelihood, what the brain has brought to our attention needs our conscious intervention more than the ‘correct’ meditation object. For example, if you start worrying about an issue at work, that issue probably needs you conscious attention far more than the breath does. The breath will keep doing its job with or without your awareness. That work issue, however, is much more complicated, and the thoughts and emotions that surface probably need careful consideration. Please note:

  • If you ignore the so-called distractions you’ll miss the interesting, important and pleasant ones.
  • Each distraction is an opportunity to re-focus on what’s most important.
  • Working with distractions is the most effective long-term strategy for clearing the mind.
  • Sensory distractions help to keep us feeling calm, grounded and present.
  • Thoughts have the capacity not just to distract us, but to commandeer our attention entirely.
  • Frequently checking to see what you are thinking about helps to recover attention when it has been captured by thought.
  • Further labelling, investigating or visualising your thoughts can help prevent you from spiralling into unproductive or stressful thinking patterns.

For more information on managing thoughts read the transcript of Eric Harrison’s ‘Thought Management‘ from his How to Meditate CD Set.