Some kinds of thinking are helpful in terms of what we’re trying to achieve in the meditation, and some kinds aren’t.
So in mindfulness of breathing the counting (which is a form of thought) is helpful. In lovingkindness practice the phrases that we say (“may you be well,” etc.) are also helpful. And less “programmatic’ thoughts can also be helpful in bringing about greater attentiveness, relaxation, calmness, or other qualities. You can recognize these by their effects.
But generally, most of the thinking we do is concerned with worrying, doubting, arguing, criticizing, yearning, etc., and most of that thinking perceptibly stirs up suffering of one sort or another.
I’d simply suggest looking at what your thoughts are doing, and notice whether they’re contributing to your wellbeing or otherwise. And in the same vein you can look at what periods of mental stillness and non-thought do.
The distinction I am making isn’t between preplanned (or as I called them earlier, “programmatic”) thoughts and spontaneous thoughts, but between thoughts that cause disturbance or confusion and those that lead us into deeper stillness. And the way to tell the difference is to notice not just the thought, but what effect the thought has. This, it must be said, can be a challenging practice at first, and especially if the mind is still quite unruly.
Given this challenge, it’s absolutely fine to treat all throughs the same way, just noticing and letting go of them. Once the mind begins to still even just a little, it’ll become easier to notice what effects your thoughts are having.
And actually it can be even easier than this to distinguish the two kinds of thought. We can perceive a qualitative difference between them, in an esthetic sort of a way, much as we don’t have do do any analysis whatsoever to tell the difference between a good singer and a bad singer. You just feel, in the moment of hearing, that this singer has a good voice and that that one doesn’t, or that this thought is just noise, and this one has a quality of clarity and wisdom to it.
Of course in meditation we sometimes have great ideas. In the relative stillness and openness of meditation, creativity can emerge. You might solve a problem that’s been bugging you for ages, or come up with an excellent idea for something you hadn’t even realized was a problem. Those ideas again are qualitatively different from the usual “junk thinking” we often do, but still have the effect of taking us away from our meditation practice, and although they’re a subtler form of distraction than having an argument with a colleague in your head, they’re still distractions. What I often do in such circumstances (I do not want to lose those good ideas) is to cross my fingers. When I come out of meditation I am aware that my fingers are crossed and I remember what the idea was.
So there are actually several kinds of thinking that you might identify:
- “Junk” thinking (worrying, arguing, craving, etc.).
- “Preplanned” or “programmatic thinking (the numbers, the metta phrases).
- “Creative” thinking that’s unrelated to the meditation practice.
- “Creative” thinking that is related to the meditation practice.
It’s worth being aware of these distinctions, and seeing a move to the last two as a sign of progress. (Are there other kinds of thinking that you’ve noticed?) Also, of course, there are gaps between our thoughts, and those become longer and more pronounced as the mind settles down. We often overlook these because we become a bit too focused on the “problem” of excessive thinking and forget to appreciate the good (calm, clarity, love) that’s beginning to emerge. Remember to appreciate the stillness that arises in your mind, even if it’s only momentary.