Joseph Goldstein talks about working with thoughts as an object of mindfulness. How we relate the thoughts mindfully in our meditation practice.

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Working With Thoughts, by Joseph Goldstein:

This morning, I’d like to speak a little bit about working with thoughts as an object of mindfulness. How we relate the thoughts mindfully in our meditation practice.

The foundational understanding is that the fact that thoughts are arising or appearing the mind is not a problem. That’s just an activity of the mind to think. So the practice is to become more and more mindful of the fact that thinking is happening, the experience of thinking happening, rather than the more frequent pattern of being lost in thought and carried away in thought, and not knowing that thinking is going on.

So, it’s really important to set that understanding in the mind clearly, because people so often people come to meditation with the belief or the idea that it means we’re not supposed to think, and then it simply becomes a source of great frustration.

There may be times when there are more or less thoughts happening depending on the times when there are few thoughts appearing, but the fact that thoughts arise, that’s not, that’s not a problem for practice.

We really want to strengthen our ability to be aware of this object when it appears. So, there are many ways and levels on which we can practice this.

One way of undertaking the practice of mindfulness of thoughts is to pay attention and see if you can recognize the predominant themes that come again and again. So, for example, you may notice over time that you have a lot of planning thoughts, or judging thoughts. Maybe there’s thoughts about your family, or about your work. So, I used to suggest people make the note in a work tape, family tape, whatever. But then, it was pointed that people don’t use tape anymore (people laughs).

So, this is the holdover from the old tapes. And so, you can use the term if it’s helpful, but you can find some other,.. maybe track. (people laughs). The word track. But if you can recognize the familiar patterns, and make a note specific to that pattern, knowing as you’re practicing. It’s as if you’re keeping an eye out, an inner, mental eye out for the arising of that particular pattern.

It will help you be aware of it early on. You know, it’s like you’re setting the radar out for the arising of the work thought, for the family thought, for the future, whatever it may be.

So, recognizing the particular patter, creating some kind of mental note or mental label. Very simple, you know, where you can tag it as it arises. Having set the intention in the mind to really keep an eye out for it. I think you’ll find overtime that you can get quite adept at picking them up closer to the beginning.

Be very attentive to the tone of voice of whatever note you’re making, because for this to be effective, for us to really develop some wisdom with regards to the thinking process, we need to be aware of the fact that thought is there without aversion, without judgment, without the attitude that it shouldn’t be there. It simply the bare recognition. Oh, this is arising. This is arising. So, the tone of voice of note will reveal whether there’s some unconscious attitude in the mind.

If you find yourself noting with a harsh, aversive tone, that’s a signal, that’s a feedback that there’s that attitude in the mind and that can be changed in quite a remarkable way simply by changing the tone of the note, and all of these is in the mind. So, if you soften out thinking, thinking, thinking, or planning, whatever it is.

So, it’s something to particularly pay attention to the attitude of the mind with regards to the fact that the thought is there, and see if you can just come to that place of simple recognition.

So, that’s one arena of being aware of thought.

With the random thoughts that don’t particularly fit into any particular theme, the simple note of thinking will do. And don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out. Oh, is it this theme, or that theme? If it doesn’t come in the moment, you know, just thinking, thinking.

Then, notice what happens as you become aware that you’re thinking, or as you become mindful of it, and perhaps noting it, what happens to the thought? And it’s not that anything in particular that should happen. It’s just a note of what does actually happen. Does the thought disappear? Does it continue? Does it fade out? Hm? Again, it’s just a way of becoming mindful of the process that is happening. We’re not trying to make anything particular happen.

The whole test in this exercise is to refine the ability to be aware of thought as it’s happening in whatever way it does.

Couple of other ways of practicing with thought. Now, the reason why we give so much emphasis on this particular aspect of mindfulness is that the phenomenon of thought of thinking is such an interesting and powerful part of our lives, and I think we’ve all had the experience that when we’re not aware that thinking is going on, thoughts have tremendous power. They’re like little dictators in mind. We’re lost in them. They’re influencing our whole mental state.

They’re motivating us to act in one way or another. And the thoughts go here, go there, do this do that, and we are just like slaves of thoughts. And yet, when we are aware of thinking, when we’re really being mindful and see it arising, and passing in the mind, we see that thought in its very nature is completely empty. It’s like transparent, it’s so ___, it’s like this little blip of energy that arises. A thought is really literally more than nothing when we’re looking at it directly.

So, the more awareness we bring to it, and the more wisdom we develop with regards to thought as a phenomenon, they begin to lose so much of their power and it gives us the ability to exercise much greater discernment.

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