How Can I Be Mindful of Thoughts?

When you’re trying to develop concentration at the beginning of your sitting, your primary concern is to let go of thinking and return attention to the sensations of breathing.   To do this gently, it’s helpful simply to note that thought is present and go back to the breath.

Once a base of concentration is established, we can give a little more attention to thought.  We don’t want to drift along with discursive thinking.   We just want to be a little more present with it than merely noting that it’s happened.

This requires enough concentration to anchor mindfulness in the physical sensations of breathing.  With this, we can notice:  1) what a thought is about, and 2) the effect it has on our bodies.  In essence, this is an exercise in memory, performed immediately when we realize we’ve been thinking.

We’ll notice that the body feels a lot more relaxed when we’re mindful of the breathing than when we were thinking.  Thinking almost always involves a tightening in the body and a shrinking of awareness.  The body might also register heaviness or burning or other sensations of being uneasy.

Whatever pulled us away from the tranquility of mindfulness probably involved some form of dissatisfaction, taking the form of desire, aversion or delusion.  In other words, as we sat there being present, some residual desire, aversion or restlessness arose and took shape as a thought.  As we explore how the thought made us feel physically, we get a look at the very nature of suffering.

The trick to “being present” with thought is to be anchored in the sensations of the body at that moment.  The details of this thought are not important.  Far more important is how it affects us.   For this exploration we hold attention on any physical sensations that remain after we notice we’re thinking, until those sensations fade away, then go back to the breath.

By noting the general topic of thought and examining its effect on how we feel, we gradually learn what mental habits lead to thoughts and emotions that cause dissatisfaction.  With that understanding, we can begin to transform our mental milieu and gradually liberate ourselves from suffering.

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