Observing My Thoughts

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;

On purpose,
in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.”

-Jon Kabat-Zinn

Before I retired, I spent a lot of time worrying about work.  I worried about the future by torturing myself with questions like:  “What will my client think?” “How will I meet a deadline?”  “What if I fail?”  I worried about the past by criticizing my performance:  “Did I look stupid?” “Why wasn’t I more prepared?”  “Why did I say (do) that?”  My obsession with worry was difficult to overcome so I worried about that.   “Why can’t I stop worrying?”  “What is wrong with me?”  Now, in retrospect, it seems almost comical.  But, at the time, my thoughts could be debilitating. Not only was I distracted by these thoughts, the thoughts would create anxiety, which then often resulted in emotional outbursts or migraine headaches.

The concept of mindfulness originated in Eastern meditation practice.  According to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, “In mindfulness meditation, or shamatha, we are trying to achieve a mind that is stable and calm.” (2016)  This isn’t easy for most of us.  Our thoughts usually have free reign to race up our ladders of assumptions, inferences and conclusions, wrecking havoc with our ability to think critically or creatively.  So, does achieving a stable and calm mind mean that we must control and change our thoughts?  I have learned from years of fruitless effort that the answer to this question is “no!”    Our western mindset, with its focus on the individual “self” predisposes our inclination to try to take charge of our thoughts.  Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, suggests that transformation is possible only by paying attention to and accepting our thoughts, rather than changing them.

There are many different meditation traditions and techniques.  Recently, I visited a wellness center to participate in “yoga nidra” or yogic sleep, which is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.  The leader suggested that we lie down while she guided us through a lengthy visualization and relaxation exercise.  While I used similar techniques when I taught stress management over thirty years ago, I found it uncomfortable, especially now that I’m accustomed to sitting meditation that focuses on observing the breath.  Maybe it’s because I’m now in my 60’s but I found it difficult to find a comfortable position and I felt rushed by the instructor’s words and images.

On Purpose

My practice is based on “Vipassana”, or insight meditation, which relies on continued close attention to sensation, through which one ultimately sees the true nature of existence.  Being “on purpose” in Vipassana meditation means being disciplined as we pay attention to our breath.   I try to remain disciplined as I notice my thoughts, while not trying to change them. I acknowledge the thought, then immediately return to my breath.  While I consider myself a beginner in meditation, I have noticed that by maintaining the discipline of focusing on inhaling and exhaling, I also become aware of other physical sensations.  These sensations include:  heaviness in my body, contact of my feet with the floor, and changing breathing rhythms.  Gradually, I feel more relaxed, centered, and comfortable, both physically and mentally.

In the Present Moment

When we’re mindful, we’re concerned with noticing what’s going on right now.   That doesn’t mean that we can’t think about the past or future.  It means that if we do focus on the past or future, we do so mindfully, as a choice.   We don’t have to be enslaved by our rampaging thoughts.  We can be mindfully present in everything we do, not just in our thoughts.  In our work, eating, house cleaning, communicating with others and endless other areas of our lives, we can be more in the present moment.   In Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, Thich Nhat Hanh offers the following suggestions for mindful eating:

At home, reserve a time for dinner. Turn off the TV; put away the newspapers, magazines, mail and homework. If you are eating with others, work together to help prepare dinner. Each of you can help with washing the vegetables, cooking or setting the table. When all the food is on the table, sit down and practice conscious breathing a few times to bring your body and mind together, and recover yourselves from a hard day’s work. Be fully present for each other, and for the food in front of you.

After a few conscious breaths, look at each other with a gentle smile and acknowledge each other’s presence. If you are eating alone, don’t forget to smile to yourself. Breathing and smiling are so easy to do, yet their effects are very powerful in helping us and others to feel at ease. When we look at the food in such a moment of peace, the food becomes real and reveals our connection with it and with everything else. The extent to which we see our interrelationship with the food depends on the depth of our mindfulness practice. We may not always be able to see and taste the whole universe every time we eat, but we can do our best to eat as mindfully as possible. 

As someone who has struggled with weight my entire life, I find the concept of mindful eating both intriguing and hopeful.  You will be hearing more from me about this in the future.  In what areas can you be more in the present moment?

 Non-Judgment

Left alone, our mind automatically makes judgments – what is good or bad, what is right or wrong, what we should or should not think, feel, or do. I call these judgements “fairy tales.”  They are not reality and we don’t have to accept them.  Mindfulness empowers us to make choices about whether or not to believe the fairy tale.  In mindfulness meditation, we can consciously “label the thought” by saying to ourselves, “I am thinking right now.”  This gives us some distance from our thoughts, making it easier to make a different choice.  Then, we come back to our breathing in the present moment.  As I continue to hone my personal discipline in distancing myself from my own fairy tales, I’m finding the present moment to be more and more peaceful.  It requires dedicated practice but it’s a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance that is worth the effort.

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