When You Meditate What Do You Think About?
One of our newsletter followers wrote in today to ask, “When you meditate, what do you think about?”
Good question. Thanks for asking.
The answer really depends on the type of meditation that you are doing, because some types of meditation do involve thinking, and some involve monitoring your self-talk. Other forms of meditation, however, do not involve thinking at all. Indeed, the entire point in certain forms of meditation is to stop thinking about anything at all.
Let’s look at what to think about during meditation, when you should and shouldn’t think, and why it’s important to get your thoughts right when you meditate.
And because this topic does get technical, I will first share a definition of “Thinking”. Thinking, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is, “to have a particular idea or opinion about something/somebody”. This definition will become important when I discuss what to think about when meditating, in just a moment.
Should You Think When You Meditate?
The first question we need to answer is, Should you think when you meditate?
Some meditators would say an absolute “No” because meditation is about mindfully observing the world, not thinking. However, in some types of meditation this simply is not true (see below).
When we meditate in the most basic sense, such as by mindfully observing the breath, we do not deliberately think. Instead of thinking, we observe the object that we are meditating on, such as the breath. We will naturally experience thoughts when meditating, but this is not the goal. Instead the goal is non-judgmental observation of the present moment. In other words, it’s about watching and sensing now.
We use this mindful awareness in many forms of meditation, such as Anapanasati (mindful breathing), Vipassana (Buddhist insight meditation), Body Scans, Samatha, and many other techniques.
If you do experience a thought while meditating, it is best to calmly observe the thoughts in the present moment, and to tell yourself, “This is just a thought”. This trains the mind to calmly observe thoughts rather than getting lost in them, and also to be less reactive to negative or painful thoughts.
However, sometimes we should think during meditation. Some types of meditation directy ask us to think. So let’s look at those types.
When you should think in meditation
Before I get into the types of meditation that require thinking, let me just restate the definition of thinking. Thinking is experiencing “ideas or opinions about something or somebody”. Thoughts are generally experienced as words in the mind, or as images. And there are some meditations that directly ask us to create mental words and images.
Take Metta (Loving Kindness Meditation), for instance.
Metta is a form of meditation in which we visualize giving and receiving warm feelings of love and kindness to and from other people. So already we do have some thoughts occurring, because we are deliberately creating specific ideas about people. Metta also includes specific words to think. When we do Metta we think, “May [name of person] have love and kindness. May they be free from suffering. May they have the strength to overcome any obstacles in their lives” (note: the exact words of the Loving Kindness script vary from teacher to teacher).
There are other similar forms of meditation in which we deliberately create specific thoughts and feelings, such as Karuna (Buddhist compassion), which is all about cultivating compassionate thoughts and feelings for ourselves and other people.
As you can see, there are indeed some types of meditation in which we think, and there has been ever since Buddha (in fact, arguably since before Buddha because some Hindu mantras require thoughts too).
What should you think about during meditation?
If you are doing a form of meditation that involves thinking, there are certain things to think about when you meditate. Mostly, you want to replace negative thoughts.
Some meditation techniques will tell you straight-up what you should think about. For instance, if you’re doing a mantra meditation you will obviously have the words of the mantra in front of you, and then you will recite that mantra. The same is true with affirmations. You decide what you are going to think and then you repeat the same thought in your head.
Sometimes you won’t have a specific thing to think about when meditating. For instance, sometimes I’ll be sitting down doing mindful breathing when I experience a negative thoughts about myself or about another person. When this happens I like to change the thoughts to something more positive.
Here are some ways to change your thoughts while you meditate:
Think Compassion: If you experience negative thoughts about yourself or someone else while meditating, change the thought so it is more compassion.
Failures: If you get stuck thinking about something you did wrong, aim to understand how the error occurred and tell yourself how you will change your actions next time.
Love: Love should always be an aim in meditation. If you think about someone, make sure you think loving thoughts about them.
Aim for mindful observation: Whenever you experience a thought or a feeling during meditation, mindfully observe it. Remind yourself that a thought is just a thought and a feeling is just a feeling, nothing more. This will make you less reactive to negative thoughts and feelings.
Gratitude: One of the absolute best things to think about during meditation is all the things you have to be grateful for. Cultivating gratitude will help you to be happy and to stay that way.
Ultimately it is up to you whether you choose to do a form of meditation that involves thinking, or one that is more about sitting quietly and observing the present moment. Both ways are beneficial.
That said, if you do choose to actively think during meditation, make sure that you are thinking positively and being compassionate. Compassion and gratitude are the keys to happiness. That’s why you should focus on them.