A student asks: I’m confused about how to do reflections. Aren’t we supposed to let go of thoughts during meditation?

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Students who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.

A student asks: I’m confused about how to do reflections. Aren’t we supposed to let go of thoughts during meditation?”

Sunada replies: Contrary to popular belief, there’s actually nothing wrong with thinking during meditation! It’s the kind of thinking that determines whether it should be avoided or encouraged.

There are three different ways that we can think in meditation, two of which are to be avoided. The first is the all too common, random, miscellaneous thinking that seems to fill our heads, like “I wonder if it’s been 20 minutes yet?” or “Hey, I’m getting really concentrated. This is great!”

The second is when we actively grapple with a thought, analyze it, work with it, tackle it, get into problem-solving mode, etc. This too should be avoided because it takes us away from being mindfully present. We can get lost in the thinking process.

But there’s a third kind of thinking — reflection — that’s something very much encouraged and beneficial. This is where we take a single thought or teaching and use it as the object of concentration. Once we settle into a calm and concentrated state, we gently but mindfully float the idea in our awareness. We don’t tackle it or try to answer it. We make no active mental effort to do anything with it. We just let it float there, and let any answers come to us. And we stay fully present as we do this.

Have you had any experiences of insights coming to you out of nowhere? That’s what this is all about. We set up the conditions to encourage that kind of out-of-nowhere insight to arise. It’s thinking with the right side of our brain. It’s holistic and intuitive. It feels like full-body thinking. It involves the whole of us, not just our brains. It’s how we start to understand things more deeply and fully, because we begin to understand them in our hearts and bodies, not just in our minds.

Even if no particular insights arise, it’s good to pay attention at least to any physical responses we might have. If we find ourselves getting tense or anxious that clearly says something. Or perhaps we find ourselves feeling warm and happy. In other words, we may experience things of a completely non-verbal nature that are useful clues to follow.

I’m sure you can appreciate the value of this kind of thinking. We all have experiences of wanting to do something and then finding that another part of us just doesn’t want to play along. Or we read about some interesting new idea, say about Buddhism, that we understand intellectually but we don’t really “get.” These are both examples of times when our understanding is still incomplete, and the whole of us has not come on board. Reflection is a great way to engage ourselves more deeply and bring all of us forward as we learn and grow.

Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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