Have you ever wondered what to do with thoughts during meditation?
You might have noticed that the typical advice to “Let go of your thoughts” when meditating is actually incredibly hard. Everyone says that you should simply let those intrusive thoughts go right by you, not being disturbed by them. But is that even possible? Is it natural to switch off your thoughts when you meditate?
The basic concept for dealing with thoughts when you meditate is this: mindfully acknowledge them, do not dwell on them, let them go by and continue focusing on your breath. Right. Easy as that. Except it isn’t.
As a meditation teacher, there are times when I still get lost in thoughts when practicing mindfulness.
In the Buddhist practice of Vipassana meditation, we go further with our thoughts.
Instead of just mindfully observing them and letting them go by, we label them. “This is a mental sound,” “This is an imaginary image,” we say. This labelling of thoughts helps us to recognise the true nature of thinking. This prevents us from getting lost in thoughts.
It’s generally agreed that the one thing you absolutely should not do is to try and stop your thoughts. This just makes your thoughts come back louder. Instead, what you should aim for is a to-and-fro. It works like this. You focus on your breath. A thought comes so you acknowledge it. You return to observing the breath. Another thought comes so you acknowledge it. And again you return to the breath.
Do you notice how it works like a toe-and-fro between mindful breathing and thinking? That’s the general consensus about how to handle thoughts when meditating. This trains the mind to return to the breath.
The returning is the entire point. It’s training us to not dwell on thoughts, to not get trapped in the mind, to return to the moment. This is what Buddha explained when he taught “Peaceful Abiding” meditation (Samatha).
You might notice that this isn’t always easy, though. If you’ve been having a busy day, or you’ve been on social media all day and you’re suffering information overload, you can’t just flip a switch and turn your mind off. Your mind will be racing. Slamming on the breaks won’t help. That’s why you should take some steps to slow your mind before you meditate. Taking breaks will help you to just generally stop thinking too much all the time.
You also should acknowledge the fact that thoughts are not bad. The idea isn’t to get rid of your thoughts. It is natural for your mind to produce thoughts.
One mistake people make when meditating is that they notice that they can’t stop thinking, so they give up. But again, that to-and-fro from mindfulness-to-thought-back-to-mindfulness is the entire point. Instead of giving up, do what is described by the Tibetan word “Gom”, which means to “become familiar with”. Realise what is happening in your mind, become familiar with it, and accept it.
And when you do accept a thought, do so in a gentle way. As we do in “Vipassana”, when we label our thoughts we should do so in a calm and friendly manner, and with a gentle tone.
These things in mind, here are my top tips for dealing with thoughts during meditation.
What to do with thoughts during meditation
Time needed: 20 minutes.
When it comes to dealing with thoughts during meditation, follow these tips.
- Realise that it is okay to think while meditating
It is completely normal to experience thoughts when meditating. Your mind doesn’t simply stop just because you’re meditating. You are not meditating incorrectly just because you experience thoughts. It’s okay!
- Return to the breath like this
The idea is to return to the breath. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t lose your focus from time to time. Again, that’s totally normal. It’s normal to experience a to-and-fro, that works like this: Mindfully breathing > Thinking > Return to mindfully breathing > Thinking > Return to mindfully breathing.
- Acknowledge your thoughts gently
When you acknowledge your thoughts, do so in a relaxed and gentle way. Your tone of voice (tone of thought?) should be calm and friendly.
- For major bonus points
If you want to earn major bonus points and renovate your mind at the same time, correct your thinking. If, for instance, you’re meditating when you have an angry thought about something someone did, seek forgiveness. You can learn more about this and other tips in my guide to CBT Techniques.
Most meditations don’t require you to actively think. Instead, they require that you focus on the breath and acknowledge any thoughts that you do have. This is different for some meditations, such as Buddhist Metta (Loving Kindness), in which you think about sending love and kindness.
It’s best not to try and control your thoughts during meditation. Instead, simply acknowledge when you are experiencing a thought, and then return to focusing on your breathing.