Who are you in the silence between your thoughts? – Gil Fronsdal
This quote by Insight meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal resonates for me as I like to describe those spaces as “Moments of Stillness”. Meditation practice is not always easy but we intuitively know that the moments or glimpses of pause work to bring us home to ourselves in ways that contain magic.
The quote above is also a great reminder that we are not our thoughts. We are not brains on a stick = we have an embodied experience of life, no matter how much or often we can get lost in thoughts or distanced from our bodies and hearts. Many of our thoughts are simply that – thoughts. They are not necessarily true or require action. Many are biased and troublesome and as the philosopher and meditation advocate and teacher Sam Harris describes below, our thoughts can simply be quite boring.
Mindfulness is about recognising that you need not be a hostage to your thoughts. In the default state of mind, it’s as though you’ve been kidnapped by the most boring person on earth and forced to listen to a maniac talk at you all day long. Literally, the conversation starts the moment you wake up and doesn’t end until you fall hopelessly asleep at night. Mindfulness offers an alternative to this, but it takes some training to acquire this skill. If you can recognise a thought as a thought, if you can step back and just notice thoughts as mere appearances in consciousness, then you’re free – Sam Harris
So, a key question for our practice and lives:
How can we step back from our thoughts, so we are noticing them as “mere appearances in consciousness” and therefore become free from so many of our judgements, reactions, triggers etc?
- Choose an anchor for awareness on the Body or the Breath
When we choose to have an anchor and we practice for long enough on that focus, we soon enough find that we’ve gotten lost in thought bubbles. Come back or start again by anchoring on the chosen focus of body or breath and notice each time awareness drifts away. The very moment of realising we’ve been lost in thought is very much part of the meditation practice. We realise how often we drift into the thinking mind without realising we were even “there”. Then we return to the here and now. Over and over again, we “start again” and re-anchor to the breath, body or any chosen focus for awareness.
- Choose to focus on Sounds
We can focus on sounds as physical phenomena and literally stay anchored to the sensations of physical sound. We notice sounds as they come and go, or stay. These are “just” sounds, in the same way thoughts are “just” thoughts. When we are so curious and close to the act of hearing sounds, we don’t have time to form stories or judgements about the origins of those sounds. We don’t need to stir our systems up with likes and dislikes about what is in our inner or outer environments. Being so curious about what we are experiencing in our senses – whether sound or touch or other sensations – is the portal to the here and now. Our nervous systems rest in sensations without needing to change, fix or do anything.
- Kindness towards our thoughts
When thoughts do arise, we can choose to look at them with kindness, as we would towards a child requiring our attention. The great myth about meditation is that we are aiming for an empty mind. In fact, in a mindfulness practice we are not aiming to evoke any particular state. We are simply practicing ways to be open to whatever states arise and in doing that the battle for control, cravings, aversions and distractions can temporarily cease. This is not a simple practice but we do know the sweet freedom that being present provides.
- Categorising thoughts
We all have our favourite playing records. As many mindfulness teachers have often asked students, what are the top ten tunes on your playlist? See if you can notice repetitive thoughts or familiar thoughts. As suggested above, can you observe these thoughts with some space or distance and even a gentle, accepting smile? Can you let these thoughts swirl in and around and do so with kindness and compassion for what our monkey minds naturally do? Can I do this? Sometimes I can. I can note when thoughts are in the worrying key or octave and I can note other thoughts that involve planning, or regret, or even excitement and inspiration. It can help to be aware of the type of thoughts that come in and that this is a changing or passing parade in which mental activity comes, goes and continues on in varying degrees and patterns. We all have brains that are so well trained to be running the show, without us even noticing. When we practice categorising thoughts we can notice and name them as they arise and watch them fall away. We can whisper lightly in the mind, “planning”, “remembering”, “judging”, “doubting”, or “imagining”. We might see patterns of thoughts. We might notice the tone of a thought and how it connects to feelings. We can even watch ourselves wishing our thoughts away and realise how futile this is most of the time. In this way we learn that the noticing of the thought is mindfulness as opposed to when we are on automatic pilot and lost in thoughts. We all know the experience of arriving at a destination without consciously noting or remembering which routes we took to get there – mindlessness.
- Using metaphors and a sense of spaciousness
An often-used metaphor or imagery that can help us take that step back from our thoughts are of those clouds passing through the sky. With our thoughts being the clouds, sometimes those thoughts/clouds are light and fluffy and other times those thoughts/clouds might be dark, heavy and feel quite menacing. The clouds do pass, and new clouds eventually float by – all the while there is the wide, open, expansive sky behind it all. Can we tap into that spaciousness/expansiveness?
The metaphor that often resonates for me is to think of thoughts as electricity currents firing from the brain. They come and go and we can’t necessarily control them but we don’t have to give them that much playing space either. When we can tap into a sense of the spaciousness that is beyond thought, the body can soften, the breath can release and the heart can rest in loving awareness. Indeed, “who are you in the silence between your thoughts?”
Artwork: A Maze of Thoughts by Suzanne Frydman
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications