As we meditate, thoughts bubble up. Many people are bothered when this happens, and tell themselves that there’s something wrong or that they’re no good at meditating. But having a lot of thoughts arise is OK. Our minds produce thoughts. It’s natural.
While bubbles in water contain gases, the thought bubbles that arise in the mind contain stories. Sometimes the stories inside these bubbles are emotionally compelling, and we can’t resist sticking our heads inside to see what’s going on. The bubble now surrounds our head like a 3D holographic display, complete with images, sounds, and tactile and other sensory information. And the story we’re witnessing is interactive! We now start playing the role of being ourselves, communicating with characters who love us, hate us, or ignore us, or we simply get lost in talking to ourselves about various aspects of our lives.
When we’re lost inside these thought bubbles it’s as if we’re dreaming or hypnotized. We lack self-awareness. We’re participating in our experience but we’re no longer monitoring or observing it. We can stay stuck inside these hypnotic bubbles for a long time, but at some point we realize that it’s not a very wholesome activity for us to be involved in, we remove ourselves from the bubble, and return to the world of sensory reality.
Although they are compelling, with practice we find that we can simply let the bubbles float by us. We’re still aware of the stories they contain, still aware of the emotional pull they exert upon us. But now we’re more in the role of “observer” and no longer a participant in their dramas. The pull is felt less strongly. The stories are seen as unhelpful.
In order to to develop the ability to remain outside of the hypnotic bubbles of your thought, you can practice being aware of the actual physical space around you, and the light and sound and smells that it contains. You can become aware of the entire physical body, and of the myriad sensations arising within it. You can be aware of feelings that arise in the body. You can be aware of the qualities of the mind: is it contacted or expansive; dull or bright; busy or quiet; discontented, happy, or neutral?
Noticing all of this creates a “space” of awareness that’s expended, rather than contracted. The mind is contracted when it’s absorbed in a single thought. It’s expansive when it’s paying attention to the breadth of our experience. When the mind is spacious, there is a sense of there being a distance from our thoughts as they bubble up. With that sense of distance comes freedom—the freedom to observe rather than participate in our inner dramas, the freedom to accept our experience rather than judge and resist it. There may be just as much thinking going on as before, but it’s no big deal. The thinking co-exists with mindfulness.
With practice, we find that although we still get distracted—still get sucked into the hypnotic bubbles that arise within the mind—it becomes easier for us to let our thoughts arise and pass away without becoming hypnotized by them. We find that we naturally do more observing and less participating. We spontaneously find ourselves living in a more spacious realm of awareness. We find ourselves enjoying greater freedom.