Today, one of my online meditation students asked me what to think about when meditating.
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 me show you the different options.
What To Think About When Meditating
Think about sensory experience
Normally, what we think about when meditating is based on sensory experience.
For instance, when we are doing Vipassana, we will label any sensory experience that the mind is drawn to. We might say, “this is a sound” or “this is a feeling”. And so we are using our thoughts to label sensory experiences.
Think positively and change negative thoughts
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 thought. When this happens, I like to change the thoughts to something more positive.
Mostly, you want to replace negative thoughts.
Many meditation techniques ask us to think about love and compassion. For instance, Metta meditation (Loving Kindness) and Karuna.
Metta is a form of meditation in which we visualize giving and receiving warm feelings of love and kindness to and from other 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”.
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.
Love should also be an aim in meditation. If you think about someone, make sure you think loving thoughts about them.
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.
Dont think about anything at all
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.
We use this mindful awareness in many forms of meditation, such as Anapanasati (mindful breathing), Vipassana (Buddhist insight meditation), Body Scan, Samatha, and many other techniques.
If you do experience a thought while meditating, it is best to calmly observe the thought in the present moment. Tell yourself, “This is just a thought”. This trains the mind to calmly observe thoughts rather than getting lost in them. Plus, it makes us less reactive to negative thoughts.
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.