I was teaching a class the other night and after a guided meditation one woman said she’d found it hard because lots of thoughts came up, and she’d get absorbed in them. Then she had to keep letting go of the thoughts and returning to the breathing. Of course I reassured her that that’s absolutely normal. In fact, noticing that we’ve been caught up in the mind’s stories and returning to our present-moment experience (whether of the breathing or something else) is what meditation is about.
Once you accept that fact, you’re less likely to think of yourself as being a “bad meditator” or to think that your meditation practice isn’t going well just because you get distracted. In fact, under such circumstances your practice is going just as it should.
Many years ago I found it useful to watch what you might call “thoughtspace.” Thoughtspace is the physical location of your thinking. Now you might not have thought of your thinking as having a physical location, but try paying attention right now as you say something to yourself internally. I think you’ll find that your thoughts emanate from a particular place (probably inside your head). If you watch that part of your experience closely — if you monitor your thoughtspace — you’ll think less.
This helps to calm the mind. Except … I also found that there was a kind of secondary thoughtspace. Over and over I’d find that I was watching the primary thoughtspace (the one you just identified) carefully, only to become aware that there was a subtle background whispering coming from somewhere else. The thinking that came from the secondary thoughtspace seemed quieter and less obtrusive, however. The primary thoughtspace seemed to give rise to the kinds of thoughts that completely threw me off track and led into unmindful absorption in daydreams and fantasies. The secondary thoughtspace gave rise to subtler, more whispery thoughts, which co-existed with mindful attention so that I could be observing the breathing (or my primary thoughtspace) and still have a running commentary going on. However, those thoughts could shift to become the center of my attention if I wasn’t attentive enough.
You might want to try watching your thoughtspace and see if the same happens in your own experience.
Having just the whispery thoughts of the secondary thoughtspace is a lot better than having the more “in your face” thinking that normally goes on, but sometimes I like to calm and stabilize the mind even more. So one way to do that is to simultaneously observe your thoughtspace and what you could call your feelingspace.
Feelingspace, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, is a name for the area in the body where feelings arise. The point of observing the feelingspace is not to stop feeling arising! It’s just to observe what’s there. Now feelings can arise in many parts of the body, including the solar plexus and the heart. but most often they manifest in the solar plexus, just south of your sternum.
I don’t mean to imply having a narrow focus. If I were to start my meditation just by noticing the space where my thoughts arise and the solar plexus, for example, then this would feel very constricted and might even lead to a kind of “backlash” where my thinking increased. So although I may be focusing on the solar plexus I’m actually aware of most of the area in the body where feelings arise—basically most of the chest and abdomen. Within this, I’ll have a lightly-held focus on where I tend to be experiencing feelings the most at that particular time.
What I’ve found is that if I observe both the thoughtspace and the feelingspace at the same time, the mind becomes even quieter. The mind may not become completely silent all the time, but there are longer periods of calm.
Whatever you do, don’t get attached to the idea of getting rid of thoughts altogether! You can’t control the arising of thoughts, and they will tend to bubble up. If you have the idea that you’re only “succeeding” when there’s no thinking, then you’ll get frustrated. Just try doing the practice and see what happens. It may take you a while to feel your way into it, since there are a bunch of skills I’ve mentioned that you may have to work on developing — e.g. including two different parts of your experience in conscious awareness at the same time. Some people initially find this tricky since they have the habit of focusing narrowly (although not necessarily mindfully!)
The following things are all excellent outcomes:
If you’re making a gentle effort to observe both thoughtspace and feelingspace at the same time. If you’re able to do so, or getting better at doing so. If you find that you’re a bit more aware of your thinking without getting caught up in it. If you find that periods of distraction still arise but they don’t last as long. If your thinking seems lighter and less compelling than it was before. If you notice periods of time, even brief ones, where there appear to be no thoughts arising. If you’re more aware of the area of the body where feelings arise. If you notice your feelings more. If you notice the interaction between thoughts and feelings.
Basically, any increase in awareness of what’s going on inside you is good. Any movement, however slight, toward peace and freedom is welcome. But mainly what you’re doing is just being mindful of the body, of feelings, and of the mind. It’s about process, not outcomes.
You might want to give that a try and see if it works for you.
I’ve generally found that observing two physically separate parts of my experience has a profoundly calming effect (I call this “the perceptual stretch”) but the fact that feelings and thoughts interact with each other may also help this approach to be effective in calming the mind.
Just one last point, when you have a single candle in a large room, it’s not going to light up the whole space; appreciate the light you have, rather than cursing the darkness that remains. Value any moments of calmness that emerge, rather than lamenting the fact that thoughts are still arising. By valuing calmness, you encourage it to grow.
I find the concept of thoughtspace to be immensely interesting, and look forward to bringing it into my next sitting. Blessings, thank you.
I am asking these questions from my personal experiences. Please give some advice and correct me if I am wrong.
I understood about the concept of feelingspace and I can feel it in form of subtle vibration in various chakras during the practice of vipassna.
But I am not able to understand your thoughtspace concept. The thought emanating while total extroversion(ie in daily life or just after sitting for meditation) are quite strong which cant be seen mindfully totally. However after few minutes of anapana one can become mindful to those thoughts as well.Is this what you are calling secondary thoughtspace?
So my doubt is also related to whether you are talking about thoughtspace physically in body or in the mental field?
Thanks for writing. When I’m teaching I’m just sharing my own personal experience, so I’m not making any authoritative statements about how things really are, just how they appear to me.
My experience (and I know other people who share this) is that when I observe my thoughts I notice them arising in a particular physical space inside my head. This may be an illusion, and the precise position of these thoughts might vary from person to person. My experience is also that the apparent position of my thoughts is consistent, but again that may vary in different individuals. Perhaps some people experience their thoughts in the heart, or in the space around them, or in their left foot. I just don’t know. But I suspect that if they were to watch the area where their thoughts appear to arise, then they’d think less. It’s a mild suppression, I suppose.
I’m not quite sure what you mean by your first question, but it doesn’t sound like you’re talking about the same thing. All I mean is that it seems there are strong thoughts (the ones that we often get distracted by) that are quite obvious when you’re observing the mind, but also quieter thoughts that seem to go on in the background, and are less obvious. Those secondary thoughts can move into prime position, however, and become the mind’s central focus.
There’s something similar goes on when we’re falling asleep. We can be focusing on one thought, and another, more dream-like, thought is also running at the same time. Suddenly the secondary thought moves into central position, and we fall asleep. I remember reading a description of this by the US scientist Richard Feynman, and noticing that it matched my own experience. He described (and this is in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” pages 47–48 that as he observed himself falling asleep he’d notice that he’d have two trains of thought going on at the same time — one of them obvious and the other going on in the background. Anyway, I’ve found that the same thing happens in meditation as well. It probably happens all the time, in waking life, which is why we suddenly jump from one topic to another.
My experience seems to pretty much mirror yours Bodhi. There seem to be “active participant” and “disinterested bystander” levels of thought.
When I am experiencing strong, usually negative, feeling, it is usually at the top of the belly. Sadness tends to come through as facial expression, sometimes to the point of painful contortion but usually just as a huge frown. I make a point of trying to relax my facial muscles in order that any latent sadness can come through. This helps me just deal with sadness,. Usually it dissipates, and move on. If it doesn’t dissipate then I am least in touch with the fact that I am feeling down and can manage myself while that persists.
I do find that I most often reach that state you are describing of quieter thoughts that tend to be an analysis/critique of the ongoing meditation and that this is certainly progress from replaying last night’s jiu jitsu sparring ( that’s what is grabbing a hold of me these days ). There’s a tricky balance between being accepting of what your meditation experience is and gently making efforts to improve it. Whatever the experience is, there is something to be gained from it, even if it just awareness of your distractedness or mental disarray.
Thanks,now I understood what you are saying. And I too almost have the same experience of the awareness dividing into 2 streams,one a little bit engrossed in thoughts especially at few microseconds of bursting of a thought.And the another steam of awareness as a passive seer of those thoughts.
Regarding dreams, I have had couple of lucid dreams in which the same awareness of seer is present and except that the thoughts and images are perceived much more real than meditation.
Thanks for sharing your insight.
I tend to feel a little sadness in my solar plexus. I’ve been working with my chakras and thought this sadness meant my third charkra was losing its power. Now I see that it is normal to feel your emotions in your solar plexus. Thank you for this helpful information.
I’m surprised how many Buddhist practitioners (and I don’t know if that includes you) talk about chakras. The Buddha certainly never mentioned that concept and I’ve never seen them referred to in any of the later Buddhist scriptures (e.g. Santideva, the Perfection of Wisdom texts, Yogacara writings, etc.) That could just be my own mind being selective, though. I don’t read much Tibetan stuff, and there may be more emphasis on chakras there. Probably a lot of people pick up the idea from yoga, where it’s also a popular notion.
Anyway, that aside, there’s a big nerve called the vagus that runs right down the center of the body, innervating the throat, the heart, the intestines and other major organs, and even (in women at least, I’m not sure about in males) the genitals. This nerve is very important in the expression of emotion, and it generates physical sensations (feelings) in different parts of the body, so that you get a lump in the throat when you’re moved by heroism, you feel lightness or a sinking feeling in the heart depending on whether you hear good news or bad news, you get butterflies in the tummy when you’re afraid, etc. I guess the teaching on chakras was an attempt to explain those sensations, which are all totally normal.
Even if they don’t really exist — I know! I’m a blasphemer! :) — focusing on the “chakras” is a way of becoming more aware of feelings, which is a very valuable practice.
Thanks for the this explanation of the vagus nerve. I hadn’t been aware of how it worked before and it’s very helpful to understand! Have you written about it more anywhere else?
I’ve written quite a bit about the vagus nerve, particularly in relation to empathy and compassion. But that was in the context of online courses I was running, so those articles aren’t available. A little searching online, though, will bring you to many articles on the topic.
Wow, this is super helpful! Thank you :)