Mindfulness of thinking

By Charlotte Bell

Making peace with the monkey mind

This is my idea of hell—or at least, one iteration of it: sitting on a 30-day silent meditation retreat with one little phrase of a Strauss polka repeating endlessly for five days. This happened back in 1998. I can laugh about it now. But while the days rolled by with no end in sight to this annoying background music, my attitude continued to darken. I knew in theory that the mini-concert would someday end; everything changes, right? But at the time I wasn’t sure this bouncy little phrase might not be with me for the duration of the retreat and beyond.

My mind went through an endless array of responses. Sometimes it frustrated me: Why is this interloper spoiling my silence? Sometimes I tried to ignore it: If I ignore this, it will go away. Sometimes frustration exploded into full-blown anger: Get the hell out of my head! Finally, it became laughable. That’s when things started to shift. Acceptance and humor are a meditator’s best friends. When I stopped giving it energy, it faded of its own accord.

When I teach mindfulness classes, one of the first comments I hear from first-time practitioners is how they’ve never been able to meditate. They say practicing meditation causes them to think even more. They often feel that their minds are relatively calm until they sit down and attempt to be quiet, but as soon as they sit down, all hell breaks loose. There are two responses to this phenomenon.

First, when we sit quietly and notice the goings-on in our minds, what we’re seeing is what is actually always happening, and what has always been happening in our heads. Our minds don’t suddenly go into overdrive when we sit. Instead, when we sit, we have the opportunity to notice, maybe for the first time, just how active our minds are all the time.

Second, the point of practicing mindfulness is not to banish all thoughts. If that is the goal, we will be endlessly disappointed. Our minds think. That is what they have always done. Thinking is a useful tool in our daily lives. Thinking gets us from point A to point B. It helps us accomplish what we need to accomplish. Weighing our choices through thought helps us determine the best course of action in a given situation.

Thinking can be a problem, though, when we unconsciously allow unchecked thoughts, beliefs and opinions to dictate our behavior. Unconscious, habitual thoughts thrust us into drama after drama. Being aware of the wild and woolly nature of our monkey minds is actually the first step toward learning how to deal with our thoughts skillfully. The thinking that we accuse of destroying our Zen is actually a part of the myriad sensations of which we can be mindful in each moment. It is acceptance of the presence of thinking that frees us from its grip.

Thoughts are always about the past or the future. Past thoughts can take the form of remembering past trauma, hurt, happiness or any of the other infinite experiences we’ve had in our lives. These thoughts often provoke emotional responses. For example, for trauma, we might feel fear; for hurt, we might feel anger or sadness; for happiness, we might feel wistful and want that experience back. Meditation teacher and author Joseph Goldstein likens dredging up and becoming obsessed with past thinking to “dragging around a corpse.”

Future thinking takes the form of planning and worry—my mind’s personal favorite. Future thinking is, by its nature, fantasy. While planning can be a useful tool in our lives, worry is certainly not. My favorite worry story is the story of a monk who lived in a cave. The monk was an artist and decided to paint a representation of a tiger on the wall of his cave. When he was finished, the painting was so realistic that he looked at it and got scared. That’s worry. We make up stories about something that might happen and react with stress. The irony is that most of the time, whatever it is that we’ve spent time worrying about never happens.

You can’t actually think about the present moment. By the time you think about a moment, it’s the next moment. You can, however, be aware that thinking is happening. This is the key to unlocking the calm that mindfulness is said to cultivate. Instead of indulging and losing yourself in thought, or the opposite, continually trying to banish your thoughts, you can be mindful of the process of thinking. This is the exploration: What is thinking? What is a thought?

How do we become aware of thought without getting lost in the story? One way of exploring this is to note the state of your mind/body at the moment you notice you’ve been thinking. In that moment, we can often see thoughts for what they are—free from the stories they’re telling us. The moment when we wake up out of a thought story is a rich opportunity for learning the difference between thinking and being.

So next time you find yourself lost in thought while you’re meditating, give attention to the moment when you realize thinking is happening. You’ll likely have plenty of opportunities to do this. Even after 30 years of practice, I’m still plugging away, getting lost in thought, bringing the mind back to my breath or body sensations, and a few seconds later, going through the process again.

The good news is that every time you awaken from a thought—become aware of, rather than reactive to, that annoying, endless polka—little by little you are creating a new habit, the habit of presence.


Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com/

This article was originally published on February 1, 2019.