Health & Wellness Living in Recovery Mental Health Spirituality

Thinking Mindfully

I remember my first communion. I was thirteen, and it came after three endless years of confirmation class. I was primed for it to be a big event: not only joining the mystical body of Christ as a full, adult member of the church—a sort of Lutheran bar mitzvah—but also my first taste of wine. Maybe the top of my head would be blown off by some great revelation. I didn’t know what to expect.

The reality was, I noticed that my knees hurt from the unfamiliar kneeling, the wafer was tasteless and stale, and the wine…was interesting. But no mystical experience. 

Something similar happened the first time I meditated with a group. It was in college, with a small group of my friends who were united in part by our interest in Eastern spiritual teachings. I’d had a little training in Zen and Vipassana meditation by then, as had one of the others. We were pretty excited as we sat down on the floor of a quiet, dim-lit room and closed our eyes.

As agreed, after twenty minutes we opened them again and compared notes. When it was my turn, I said, “I was aware of some discomfort in my left knee.” (Always the knees.) “I felt pretty focused and aware for a while, but then got sort of groggy.” So much for beginner’s luck.

The truth is, spiritual systems tend to over-advertise as much as anything else. They often make their pitch by describing top-end experiences that can happen, even to beginners, omitting mention that these experiences are rare, and not typical at all.

If you read or listen to a lot of the usual descriptions of meditation, you might come away with the impression that practicing mindfulness will stop your thinking mind and bring a blissful, peaceful emptiness. If you have a constantly chattering mind like mine, this can sound like a great relief.

And, in fact, I have experienced such a state. Once, many years ago, on a Buddhist retreat. While waiting for the next class, I was sitting in the room outside, and decided to start practicing now. Why wait? I was a young spiritual warrior! 

Somehow, I entered a state known in India as samadhi, a deep absorption state in which all attention is drawn inward into the root of consciousness itself. No thoughts or even physical awareness occurred for maybe five or ten minutes—I’m not sure. When I came out of it, I felt as if my mind had been vacuumed clean. And there had been some sort of trace awareness; I hadn’t fallen asleep. But my mind hadn’t moved. And that was it. The experience never happened again.

Some years later, however, I made a very different discovery. I was working at the time with a system of psychotherapy called Hakomi, which uses verbal prompts given to the client while in a light meditative state. I’d found it powerful in bringing troubling material up from the subconscious into the light of day for healing and release. I asked myself, why can’t I create prompts myself, now that I know the process? And I experimented with that. 

I had some success with it, but again, quite by accident, experienced a side-effect I hadn’t been looking for. The result of introducing guided, intentional thoughts into my meditation was that an entirely different quality of thinking occurred. Instead of the usual fragmentary, scattered, and half-finished thoughts, my thinking slowed down, smoothed out, and found a depth it rarely had. I had spent years not fully realizing that I had been fighting with my mind, my thoughts: trying to get it to settle down and be silent, which sometimes had the reverse effect, like trying to get a monkey to sit still.

This experience launched an extended period of discovery of ways to blend thinking and meditation together, rather than seeing them as opposed to each other. I found the effect was to enhance both.

I became more accepting of thoughts that came up during meditation. Instead of immediately ignoring them and turning my attention to the breath or some other object, as I’d been taught, I gently welcomed the thoughts, took note of them, to see what they were about. If they were standard-issue memories, worries, negative thinking, or meaningless, I let them go. But if they felt important in some way—a fresh idea, something I didn’t know about myself, an insight into something—I “bookmarked” them mentally for further exploration. Eventually, I started keeping a journal at my side, and would open my eyes half-way, to stay in touch with the meditative state, and slowly pick up the book and jot down enough information to come back to it later.

We seldom think deliberately. That is, for the most part, our thoughts just happen, in an uncontrolled flow, one chasing quickly after the tail of the last one. What I found was that the open, spacious quality of meditation changed the character of my thoughts, allowing me to “nudge” them gently in desired directions. I could ask questions inwardly, then wait quietly, patiently, in the space of open awareness, for an answer—like tossing a stone in a well and listening for the splash. In fact, using thought to improve listening proved to be one of the benefits of this approach.

Listening to someone in a light meditative state—hearing not only their words, but their tone, inflection, and noticing their body language, affect, etc.—then also paying mindful attention to one’s own first responses can be something of a revelation. Watching the mind as it starts to put together words to reply is interesting, too, and practicing this way can help you develop a “pause button” that limits overreactions when emotional triggers get pushed.

It’s also possible to take any given thought that comes up and examine it mindfully, instead of simply allowing one thought to react to another in an endless chain, sometimes spiraling down into well-practiced self-criticism and painful attacks. I found it easier to touch compassion for myself in my thinking if I brought more mindfulness to it, like uncramping a muscle you’ve been holding tightly without knowing it. 

Coming closer to the unconscious mind is one of the side benefits of meditation. Since the unconscious is a primary source of creativity, introducing a careful measure of directing thinking into your meditation can also access ideas for work, art, music, or any activity you are involved with. You can also choose to enter a meditative state just after lying down to sleep, and introduce a silent verbal prompt for dream induction or incubation. Thoughts stemming intentionally from a deeper, quieter place in the mind seem to sometimes have more power than from the usual state. Imagery may arise, either in meditation or in dreams, that can fuel sketching, painting, photography, or other visual media, and putting these images on paper, canvas or what have you in turn feeds back into the meditation and reinforces it positively.

For people in recovery, “stilling the mind” can be a real challenge, in part because many of us developed the habit of keeping up enough racket in our heads to drown out more painful feelings and impulses. We’re also often all too familiar with roaring freight trains of negativity aimed at ourselves. Learning to take the pressure off of achieving total quiet of thought in meditation can make the experience more enjoyable and productive. And learning to gently guide thought can empower us to question our own negative beliefs, trace them to the feelings and experiences behind them, and offer ourselves positive self-affirmation in their place.

If you’ll play with the shifting boundary between meditation and thought, you may find it a place of unexpected discovery and riches. 

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