We all know the phrase, “lost in thought.” Expressed this way “thought” sounds like a place we visit, and a place we might leave whenever we choose. But how do we do that? What bus or train can take us away from our thoughts?
One answer might seem counterintuitive: pay attention to your thoughts. According to Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (“The Aim of Attention,” Tricycle, Summer 2009), when you pay attention, that is, you become aware of your thoughts as thoughts, space naturally opens up around them and you are no longer “lost” inside them.
Awareness comes naturally to you. It is always available. By practicing attention meditation, sitting still and doing nothing more than just paying attention to the rising and falling of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, you learn to access awareness more easily and bring stability to your awareness. As you do this, the space around your thoughts will increase and stabilize as well.
It’s hard to go through a full day without wishing for something. A sample: I often wish that my body was more fit, healthy, that my mind was a kinder, more stable companion, and that I might find something entertaining or meaningful to fill my time. Even when I stop to meditate, I am not above hoping that something great will happen: I will become calm, maybe I’ll bliss out.
Wishing isn’t a bad thing, but it would be sad if we accepted it as the complete story of our life. Meditation offers a chance to step out of the wishing story. By sitting still and paying attention, we can discover that most of our storytelling (“I’m sick, unhappy, bored, … so I wish …”) is just a story, a passing cloud in our mental atmosphere, and that there are aspects of our seemingly imperfect lives that, in fact, are perfect and gratifying just as they are. Kevin Kling’s beautiful fable of The Cracked Pot (On Being, 19 May 2016) shows how it is possible to appreciate life by looking at it from a new perspective:
On this day in 1776 our ancestors declared their independence from the King of England. Beginning meditators often tell me that they are seeking a similar kind of independence from obsessive, habitual, and distracting thoughts. Their desire to be ‘thought-free’ is widely shared. Read what a long-time meditation teacher and author, Martine Batchelor, has to say about ‘freedom from thought’:
I can never help laughing, shaking my head in disbelief, at Danae (Non Sequitur, 16 May 2016). Her rage at the unbending world is so pure. Her commitment to 24/7 warfare is so unquenchable. What a child.
Of course, I have more than a little Danae in me – that’s what makes her so familiar and so funny. I want the world to go my way. And, like Danae, rather than accept things as they are, I’ll retreat into a fantasy land where I can try to hide from the world’s problems.
It isn’t unusual for meditators to seek out silence as a hiding place. How many times have I evaluated a meditation session and said, ‘it didn’t work for me’? But how could it ever be broken? Does reality ever fail to happen? Like it or not, this is my life.
Douglas Penick writes, “the path of enlightenment is not the path to enlightenment” (“What Are You Meditating For?” Tricycle, Fall 2013). There are many ways one might critique a meditation period (“I was hot, noisy, distracted, sleepy, …”), but “it brought me closer to being enlightened” isn’t one of them.
Curious about meditation? Having trouble getting past some of the roadblocks that your imagination has set up? Here is a simple way to bring your thoughts back to earth, get some straight facts, and get started: listen to two meditation experts speak with NPR’s Here and Now’s Robin Young.
Andy Puddicombe is the developer of the Headspace meditation app. Here and Now interviewed him on Wed (21 Oct 2015) on Technology Stressing You Out? There’s an App for That.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the developer and moving force behind Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a medically proven therapy for alleviating stress and pain. Here & Now interviewed him today (22 Oct 2015) on The Science of Mindfulness and Meditation.
Comics speak to me. I feel like Rat sits on one shoulder, Goat (or Uncle Duke or Dagwood or Lucy …) sits on the other. They go back and forth and I’m caught in the middle. One side tells me how the “spiritual journey” might improve my life by making me kinder, more patient and even-keeled, more helpful. The other tells me not to be such a pushover.
Thoughts, even Rat-type thoughts, are not really a problem. We are, by our very nature, thinkers. The “Problem of Thinking” is not that we think (We are thinkers! How can one not think?), but rather the fact that we can so easily get lost in our thoughts. When this happens, thought becomes a substitute for experience. You could even say thought becomes a substitute for life.
So enjoy your life. Enjoy your thoughts. An entire spiritual journey occurs each time you experience even one thought as “just a thought.” This task is not insurmountable.
Inspired by a recent trip to Ashland, Oregon.
Unattended thoughts will be given an espresso and a puppy.
“What is this?” asks a zen koan. I often feel that way about meditation. What is this? Is meditation so different from the rest of my life? If it truly is, if meditation is the life arena where focus and attention reign, and the rest of is ruled by the demons of distraction, where should I live?