We can experience different kinds of distracted thinking in meditation.
There are obvious, compelling, and “in your face” thoughts in which we tend to become completely immersed. These are the full-blown distractions where we completely forget that we’re meant to be meditating, and instead become submerged in our inner dramas. We dip in and out of these all the time in meditation, returning to the practice every time mindful awareness reappears.
Then there are lighter background thoughts that babble on in the background, even as we continue to pay attention to the meditation practice. So we’ll be following the breathing, for example, while random thoughts keep popping up. Perhaps these thoughts take the form of a commentary on our experience, or perhaps they are completely unrelated to the meditation practice. But they’re not usually so emotionally compelling that we get caught up in them.
I mainly want to talk a little about this second kind of thinking, and how we can relate to it.
Regard your inner chatter fondly, as if you’re listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing.
So, if you’re aware of an inner voice chattering away while you follow your breathing, you can try regarding that voice fondly, as if you were listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing. When a child talks like that it’s usually charming and funny and endearing. It’s not the kind of thing we tend to get upset about.
The way we relate to our inner talk is often more of a problem than the thoughts themselves. When we start resisting our thoughts, wishing that they would go away, the resistance itself is a painful state of mind, and it’s also likely to give rise to distractedness. Our thoughts of “I wish this would stop” throw us off-balance, and we find that suddenly we’re back into becoming seriously distracted again. Our distractions resist our resistance, and before we know it we find they’ve “tricked” us into being unmindful.
Just allowing those babbling thoughts to be present helps us to prevent this happening. It also helps us to be more kind and accepting.
Taking a tolerant and playful attitude toward random thoughts, which is what you’re doing when you regard them as being like the sounds of a young child playing, lets you simply get on with the meditation. The thoughts are still there, but they no longer bother you. In fact you not only don’t mind them, but can be amused by and feel fondness for them. This is immeasurably more enjoyable and helpful than resisting them!Of course this doesn’t work so well with the first type of thinking I mentioned — the compelling kind. Those thoughts tend to be emotionally loaded, which is why we find ourselves repeatedly drawn into them. What helps there is to give our compelling thoughts plenty of space, and I discussed in a recent article.
When the mind is constricted our thoughts seem larger, and they’re harder to resist. It’s a bit like being trapped in a long car-ride with a child’s constant demands for attention. It drives us crazy! To quiet the inner child down, you need to give it plenty of space to play. Once you’ve done that, you’ll often find that it just quietly gets on with its own thing, and you can enjoy its babbling as you get on with doing your own thing. Eventually, perhaps, the toddler will take a nap, and you can enjoy the refreshing calm of a quiet and spacious mind.
Can definitely relate to this. Was thinking the other day about how I wouldn’t have described my mind as “quiet” exactly but certainly as “chill” and it kind of did feel like I was sitting there watching my mind gurgle, goo-goo and ga-ga and that while thinking was going on it wasn’t having any negative impact on my relaxed physical state.
It occurred to me that this was a little far from the notional ideal of rock solid thought free pure concentration, but on the other hand, it was kinda nice!
I never learnt how to “Just allowing those babbling thoughts to be present helps us to prevent this happening”. I criticise myself for having these thoughts, then I remind myself that I should just allow them, then I criticise myself that I can’t allow them and so on and so on. It’s a never-ending cycle. I can’t just be with them. I wonder how people do that.
Some of the sessions I spend most of the time arguing with myself, while simultaneously sort of paying attention to my breath. I wonder if it’s do with my general obsessiveness. I’m not OCD diagnosed or anything, but I can’t just let things go, I ruminate and berate myself incessantly. It’s why I took up the mediation in the first place, but it gives me no refuge from. I’ve read how people learnt how to “see thoughts for what they are – just thoughts”, how they develop an observer self and so on. I’ve been meditating for a long time now, but it hasn’t happened to me yet. When I’m thinking, I know it’s me thinking. There’s no feeling of observing my thoughts, I’m just thinking them. I know craving for results is bad, but I can’t help it.
It takes time. Good meditation instruction helps as well, though, since without it the process of learning to observe thoughts takes a lot longer. Here’s one thing you can try. Right now, close your eyes, relax, and ask yourself, “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?” Just continue watching and see if you can observe the thought once it’s arisen.