Beginners to meditation are often disappointed, annoyed, or despondent about many thoughts arise in meditation. They want to get rid of these thoughts, especially since many of them are emotionally troubling and cause stress, anxiety, and other forms of suffering.
Long-term meditators, of course, learn to accept the arising of thoughts, and so they don’t get upset about them.
Something that can benefit not just beginners, but people with many years of experience of meditation, is that we don’t need to do anything to get rid of our thoughts!
That may sound a bit puzzling. Here’s a bit of context to help you make sense of what I mean.
We tend to be very focused on the fact of thoughts arising. We experience, perhaps, a moment of inner calm, but then there comes a thought. That thought disappears, and immediately there’s another one. And another, and another. So we focus on the fact that thoughts keep arising.
But for every arising of a thought, there’s a passing away of a thought. No thought ever hangs around indefinitely. They don’t pile up in the mind, in a great heap. Yes, they arise. But they also pass away.
And our experience starts to seem very different when we allow ourselves to focus on the passing of thoughts rather than their arising.
Just watch your mind for a while, right now, and notice that each of the thoughts that appears spontaneously disappears!
You didn’t have to do anything to get rid of any of these thoughts. They got rid of themselves, because their very nature is impermanent. They are inherently transitory.
You may have felt a sense of joy as you realized that your thoughts are constantly vanishing, getting rid of themselves. It’s very encouraging to focus on that aspect of them, rather than the fact that they keep getting created.
Rather than going — oh, drat, here’s another thought — we can notice — oh, great, that’s another thought gone. We don’t necessarily think those words, although it’s not a problem if we do, and in fact it can be helpful to have that kind of thought pass through the mind—we can notice that that thought is impermanent too! But we can simply notice the passing of thoughts and, perhaps, feel happy about that fact.
And our feeling happier because we realize that thoughts, so to speak, “self-liberate,” we feel more confident. And when we feel more confident, we don’t feel the same compulsion to think that we felt before. So we may find, as we shift our focus to notice the impermanence of our thoughts, that the mind becomes calmer.
In effect, what we’re doing here is to bring an element of insight into our meditation practice. Insight, or vipassana, is the act of questioning, or examining, the nature of our experience. The most simple way to do that is to directly observe that any experience we may have, whether it’s the experience of a breath, the experience of an aching knee, or the experience of a thought, is impermanent.
Directly observing the impermanence of our experiences in this way is liberating. It helps, as the Buddha said, to divert the mind from habits that cause suffering:
“All fabricated mental states are impermanent” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.