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Why are we all so obsessed with thoughts in meditation?

And what actually goes on up there when you meditate?

mental noting meditation, what happens when you meditate?

Here’s something I’ve been pondering lately.

Why are we all so obsessed with thoughts in meditation? 🤔

I’m going to put it out there that the topic of thoughts comes up in 100% of post-meditation conversations. It’s the metric against which we all seem to define whether a single meditation was successful – or if in fact, we were meditating at all.

A mind that settles quickly = good meditation
An alert focused mind = good meditation

A scattered jumpy mind = bad meditation
Memories from the day = bad meditation
A sleepy, fatigued mind = bad meditation
Long trains of thought = bad meditation
Uncomfortable emotions = bad meditation
Restless or painful body = bad meditation

Why have we limited our measure of meditative success so narrowly that there are only two conditions in which we’ll deem our practice to have passed?

I can think of four reasons:

  1. We were promised a calm mind and so that’s what we expect, always
  2. We were taught that to meditate means to concentrate
  3. We assume effort = reward
  4. We want a “proven system” that will get us from A to B with optimal efficiency

1. We were promised a calm mind

This is so tricky. Why do we start meditating in the first place? Is it because we want to free all sentient beings from suffering? Ha! Not likely!

While there are countless benefits of meditation, the one that most people come for is Calm. I mean, there’s even an award-winning app named after it.

We want a better way to handle our stress, anxiety, overthinking and overwhelm – and we assume the way to achieve Calm is to have no thoughts.

What if we were to flip this expectation on its head?

What if we understood that to achieve Calm is to Surrender.

Surrender to thoughts, feelings, our body – everything.

That every single thing that happens in the meditation is what’s supposed to happen in the meditation.

MINDFULNESS OF THOUGHT

In Buddhist teachings, there are four foundations of mindfulness.

  1. Body + Breath
  2. Emotions
  3. States of Mind
  4. Thoughts

This very list is telling of all the things that are supposed to happen in meditation. We are supposed to FEEL. We are supposed to THINK. We are supposed to have different STATES OF MIND.

But we rarely seem to make it past first base. We stay stuck there trying to master body and breath, and in the process, pit the other three foundations against us.

Mindfulness of THOUGHT means that you are aware THAT you were thinking and WHAT you were thinking about.

So by this definition, mindfulness of thought assumes you will THINK in meditation – otherwise, would it not be called “mindfulness of blank mind”?

Here’s a mindfulness experiment I tried recently.

With my Wednesday meditation group, we did a version of the “labelling” or “mental noting” technique – where you call out, name, or give a label to thoughts, emotions or experiences. But instead of doing this silently to ourselves, we used a notebook to record our “notes” as the meditation unfolded.⁠

For me, this practice was:

A) Surprisingly very grounding in the present moment; and
B) Completely illuminating!⁠

Here’s a list of about 5-10 minutes worth of “notes” from my own meditation:⁠

  • Breath⁠
  • Cold knee⁠
  • Heart rate fast
  • Shower upstairs⁠
  • Lights⁠
  • Breath⁠
  • Foot asleep⁠
  • Foot sore⁠
  • Breath⁠
  • Breath⁠
  • Sore foot⁠
  • Sore knee⁠
  • Eye pressure⁠
  • Nose energy⁠
  • Cold leg⁠
  • Kids arguing⁠
  • Shifting⁠
  • Creaky stairs⁠
  • Breath⁠
  • Foot sore⁠
  • Why don’t I move?⁠
  • Breath⁠
  • Biting cheeks⁠
  • Kids noisy⁠
  • Matchbox on the bed⁠
  • Kookaburra⁠
  • Nails⁠
  • Tory⁠

Look at all the things that went on!

How did I feel during this practice?⁠

Peaceful. Contented. Relaxed. ⁠

Countless thoughts – yet blissful at the same time.

And how did others report feeling?⁠

Grounded. Present.⁠

So really, it’s not thoughts that are the enemy in meditation. But perhaps our expectation that there should be none.

2. We were taught to meditate means to concentrate

Another benefit of mindfulness practice is that we build the capacity to single-task; to be with one thing fully – i.e. our concentration increases.

But just because concentration is a benefit, doesn’t mean it has to be the method by which you get there. Does it?

If by Surrendering to ALL experiences in meditation the dust from your mind’s “snow globe” settles, then you will have experienced Calm; and through Calm, natural concentration has the opportunity to arise – without the need to “concentrate” on anything.

Sure, there are “single-pointed concentration” practices where you choose something to focus on (eg. the breath) and whenever you’ve noticed your mind has wandered away from this one aspect of your experience, you “bring it back.” Over and over again.

It sounds simple. It sounds perfectly legitimate. (Like doing reps at the gym, right?) But when the “bringing back” is clocked up as a “failure to be present” it doesn’t make for a very enjoyable or long-term practice. Furthermore, in the failure to master the single-pointedness of the practice, we neglect to move onto the other three foundations. We get stuck.

So, the question is there to be asked: Is this the only way to develop concentration?

In marketing terms, this would be coined a “push strategy.” You are “pushing” concentration onto yourself through technique and willpower.

What if the opposite – a “pull strategy” – were also true? Could concentration find you through the acts of letting in, letting be and letting go – of everything, and anything?

⁠3. We assume effort equals reward

If to meditate means to concentrate then that must also mean more effort equals more reward, right?

Wrong.

Well, kind of.

Effort in meditation is more likely to result in self-punishment. The kind of efforts we normally make out in the world are counterproductive to achieving the elusive Calm.

But there are right kind of “efforts” to make.

In meditation, what we’re putting “effort” into is non-striving. Allowing things to BE just as they are. To take a back seat, and practise being a passenger (and not a back-seat driver.)

i.e. Surrender

The other kind of effort you can make is building consistency into your practice. Consistently showing up to practise non-striving, being a passenger, allowing things to BE instead of BE FIXED and being friendly towards ourselves.

It’s here that top marks are awarded. (But be careful – striving to achieve non-striving is just another form of striving.)

4. We want a proven system that will guarantee results

And finally, like everything else in life, we want meditation to be efficient, effective and repeatable by a known formula that guarantees Calm FAST.

We’d rather not sit with our body’s aches and pains or hear just how loud, insistent and disparaging our thoughts really are. We want to skip the distance between A and B and teleport to Calm by magic.

As far as I’m aware, teleporting hasn’t been invented yet, so there’s a period of adjustment that one needs to go through.

If your starting point in mediation has been 10 hours in the office, shovelling lunch down at your desk and only coming up for air in the evening – expect to auto-correct!

Of course there’s going to be thoughts. Of course your body is going to make its tension known. Of course you’ll feel fatigue.

So is there any point in doing it?

100% yes!

The measure of success for a meditation practice isn’t what’s felt, heard or noticed during the meditation; it’s how it shows up as improvements in the rest of your life.

  • Sleep
  • Illness
  • Relationships
  • Mental Health
  • Career
  • Finance
  • Healing
  • Productivity
  • Growth
  • Resilience
  • Eating

Have you noticed meditation has rubbed off on any of these aspects of your life?

If so, which ones?

A final word

So the next time you wrap up a mindfulness meditation session, notice what judgements are present. If you catch yourself rating it on how much thinking went on, see if you can ask yourself a different question: What did I notice?

And from that perspective, all meditations will be deemed a “good meditation”.

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