Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Mindfulness of Breathing

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Thought trains

stonesWe talk about “trains of thought.” You can think of these as being like real locomotive trains that pull into a busy station and then go rattling off. Most of them don’t go anywhere that we particularly want to go (most of them are to do with worrying, getting angry, running ourselves down, etc). But our mind is like a little kid that’s very restless and curious, and keeps going through the open doors into the carriages.

Before we know it we’re miles away from where we wanted to be (in dangerous territory, often!), and it takes us forever to get home.

By learning meditation you can learn just to watch the trains pulling up and pulling away, being aware of them and choosing not to get into them.

Are there any trains we want to get into? Yes. Some thoughts can be useful, if they are reflections about our meditation, for example. Such thoughts take us deeper into our meditation.

One difference between useful thought trains and those that take us into distractions, is that when we’re reflecting (as opposed to being distracted), we know what we’re thinking and why, and what effect those thoughts are having). By contrast distracted thoughts are like dreams — we don’t know we’re in them until we “wake up.”

But it can take a while to recognize which thoughts are useful and at first it’s not a bad idea simply to treat all thoughts as distractions and to let them all depart from the station of the mind while you “just sit” on the platform.

Comments

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Comment from Galadriel
Time: August 17, 2010, 1:45 pm

Hi

I have been practising „mindfulness” meditation and I am not quite sure how to deal with emerging thoughts.
I have a problem.

When doing the exercise, I focus on the breath. When I notice that I have other thoughts,
I gently push them away and continue focusing on the breath.
However, I do not pay extra attention to observe my mind looking for emerging thoughts.
I focus on the breath only, and notice these thoughts automatically.
Due to the fact that I only focus on the breath, I am unable to notice some thoughts,
which are too faint or short or semi-conscious.

I have been meditating for quite a long time, and I have read several sources.
They all tell you to focus only on the object of meditation (breath, mantra,…).
They take granted that you will notice thoughts automatically(without looking for them).
However, I have found that if I do the exercise this way, 2 things happen:
1, I am less aware of my thoughts, and often only notice them when my attention has already drifted of completely
(this happens quite often).
2, I also have some faint semi-conscious thoughts (these are barely above my perceptual threshold,
therefore I am unable to detect them, unless I pay extra attention to looking for them in my mind).

Can you give me some suggestions.
Is it all right, if I focus on the breath only, and fail notice faint or semi-conscious thoughts
and drift off for longer periods during meditation.
Or should I try to pay extra attention: not only observe the breath, but observe the mind for any emerging thought?

Thank you for answering

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 19, 2010, 1:25 pm

Hi again, Galadriel.

I wouldn’t suggest “pushing thoughts away,” and would suggest you think more in terms of allowing thoughts to pass through, and letting go of them when you find you’ve become caught up in them.

Is it all right, if I focus on the breath only, and fail notice faint or semi-conscious thoughts…

Yes, that’s fine. You don’t need to pay any attention to them. Just follow the breath.

…and drift off for longer periods during meditation.

Well, that’s when you have to become aware of your thinking, and to consciously let go of the thoughts, coming gently back to the breath.

Or should I try to pay extra attention: not only observe the breath, but observe the mind for any emerging thought?

It’s fine simply to observe the breath, but once you’ve gained a higher degree of mental stillness it’s possible to notice thoughts as they begin to arise, and when this happens you can choose to let the thoughts go without ever getting caught up in them. I don’t think many people get to that point very often, but it’s worth working at this when you sense that the mind is becoming stiller. Otherwise, just keep following the breath and letting go of thoughts once you realize you’ve become lost in them.

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Comment from Helen K
Time: June 15, 2012, 8:05 am

I’ve been reading widely about meditation, and always come back to Wildmind because it’s so straightforward and clear. So thank you for that!

But I’ve become very confused about what to do about thoughts in meditation. I have a very analytical mind and as soon as I start observing thoughts I go off into immense detail about how useful they are, how emotionally charged, what I should be doing with them etc. etc. – and quickly find I’ve left my breathing far behind, not just with the thought train but with operating the whole railway network!

Early on in my meditation experience (I’ve been meditating daily for about eighteen months now) I used to feel a thought bubbling up and just not go there, keeping focused on the breath. I grew concerned because I thought suppressing thoughts was unhealthy. Now I find I’m alert for thoughts all the time; I’m breathing happily and then suddenly ‘hey, no thoughts! I wonder when the next one will come along?’

I’m really not sure where to go with this. Any advice would be really, really welcome!

With many thanks for your wonderful site,
Helen

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 15, 2012, 10:03 am

Hi, Helen.

Just keep letting go of your thoughts. When you get caught up in them, just gently return to the breathing. You’re not “supressing” thoughts by doing this; you’re simply not putting energy into them. The thoughts vanish on their own. Suppression, in standard Buddhist terminology, is something completely different — it’s forcing thoughts out of your mind by forcing your attention onto an object like the breathing. It’s regarded as a last resort. Some Vipassana people sometimes talk about doing anything in meditation as “suppression” but this is a misuse of the term.

When you get a thought like ‘hey, no thoughts! I wonder when the next one will come along?’ then just do the same thing. Let the thought pass through. It’s no different. It sounds like you’re regarding this kind of thought as being a big deal, or perhaps as some kind of failure. It’s neither. It’s just a thought. It seems you may be clinging to the idea of not having any thoughts at all, and since it’s unreasonable to assume that your thoughts will cease (unless you go very deep indeed into meditation) it would be more helpful to appreciate the calm that is there, while it’s there. Try smiling when you notice that kind of thought. And see if you can relax your attitude a little. Find a spirit of playfulness and appreciation and love.

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Comment from Helen K
Time: July 2, 2012, 5:29 am

Strange though it may seem I found this advice very challenging. My life is difficult at the moment and the thought of relaxing and finding a spirit of playfulness honestly seemed so impossible I found it deeply distressing – it’s what I want more than anything (I am by nature a playful, creative person) but it felt so far away. That rang big alarm bells for me as someone who struggles with depression and anxiety. (And I admit I may have yelled at the screen, somewhat unreasonably!)

To cut a long story short, your kind and innocuous comment showed me just how bad things have become, and I’ve been able to work on it.

I’ve stripped the complications out of my meditation practice and I’m just enjoying the calm when it happens and letting the thoughts drift off and do their own thing without troubling me. I imagine enclosing them in a little bubble and then I softly blow them away with a little wave. It’s so, so much better than all that analysis!

It sounds so simple to advise someone to be more playful, but it can be both challenging and very, very important. Thank you.

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Comment from Catriona
Time: April 18, 2013, 12:05 pm

Thank you for your excellent website. I’m very interested in your comments on thought trains as there is a question I’ve been wondering about for a while. I very much appreciate the benefits of mindfulness in reducing harmful thought trains – the anxious, ruminating type. However I find that some thought trains – what you might call ‘daydreaming’ – can be enjoyable and delightful. They certainly meet your definition of ‘distracted thoughts’ however. Is daydreaming something we should try to avoid or can it be a positive experience?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 18, 2013, 3:56 pm

Hi Catriona.

It all depends on whether daydreaming is appropriate or not. If you’re in the middle of a conversation or driving in busy traffic then perhaps daydreaming isn’t so useful. If you’re resting, then often it is useful. If you’re meditating — well, if your intention is to be mindful, then just notice the daydreaming and let go of it. That’ll help you have the ability to daydream with it’s appropriate and not daydream when it’s not!

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