How Do I Stop Thinking in Meditation
The common question is, “How do I stop thinking in meditation?”
I hear that from students a lot and I think no, you won't stop thinking. Maybe I haven't had that experience. I found that when I thought that was something you're supposed to strive for, it created more tension and stress. I'm not doing meditation so I can have more stress. There's already enough pain and suffering in the world as it is.
You get to choose how much value you place on thought.
If you're sitting and you're doing a very basic meditation and you're focusing on that place just beneath your bellybutton, when you breathe in it lifts and when you breathe out it falls. So you breathe in the belly rises, you breathe out the belly falls. You breathe in the belly rises, you breathe out the belly falls. And you can do this for five, ten, fifteen…
I recommend doing meditations for about twenty-five minutes because when you do that that's where you really start to get the experience. I don't think you need to go longer than that; twenty-five is good. If twenty-five is too long pick something that you can do. But the idea is you'll notice that your mind starts turning: “How long has it been” and “What about this” and “Maybe I'm supposed to do that” or “Maybe I'm supposed to stop thinking.” As soon as you start going, “No don't think. Stop!” it's like telling somebody who's really worked up to relax. It doesn't work right! You need to find a skillful way to manage that person who’s behaving in an erratic or irrational way.
So what I’ll do is I’ll say, “Alright I hear you thinking. I'm focusing on the belly right now; the rising, falling, rising, falling. So you're noticing you have the ability to choose where you place your attention. You're sitting there and you're doing a concentration exercise for the purpose of meditation. It’s not, “Let's just sit here and see what I think about.” That's not the concentration exercise; that's what you do all day long for the most part.
The concentration exercise is “I'm paying attention to this place beneath my navel rising and falling.”
If you could already concentrate why would you need a concentration exercise? You say, “Okay I'm going to sit here and concentrate on one thing”. So you do concentration exercises to improve the quality of your life. You're going to inhale then exhale and your thoughts are going and your back is sore. Why do we have to sit like this? So you create an environment where there's as little distraction as possible. Eventually, you may be able to do it because you know how to drop in. So you go to a place where there are fewer distractions. If it hurts your back to sit on the floor you sit on a chair. If it's quiet there's less chance that you're going to be thinking about all the external things. But you notice the external things – the pain in the back, your mind turning and you keep bringing it back to the concentration.
But pay attention and over time you’ll realize that you can choose whether you pay attention to your thought or not. You can choose whether you move your leg or not. You can choose whether you get up and leave or not. You can choose whether you open your eyes and look at the timer or not. You can choose all of those things.
When you choose to just stay focused on the one thing at hand and do it over an extended period of time you'll learn to concentrate.
Then what happens is when you're in a situation that's challenging and your initial response would be “What the hell is wrong with you?” or “You always do that,” some response is going to cause you uneasiness. You can feel it and then you can choose something else. You can feel you’re about to react and choose a different response.
The reason you can do that is because you've practiced hearing your mind going. You say “I'm going to do this instead.” You've heard your back saying, “Let's not do this anymore.” And you say, “I'm going to do this instead.”
You've practiced it so you feel that pause at the moment so you didn't stop thinking the whole time of practice.
You didn't stop thinking but you create a new relationship to thought.
“My heart is beating, my back is a little bit sore but I'm going to stay concentrated on this one thing. By doing it repeatedly I'll improve my concentration.”
When your thinking mind wants to take the wheel in a situation that might not be appropriate for you to respond in that way, you feel a pause. You respond in the appropriate way. And that's how it works. It's just creating a new relationship with thought rather than thinking, “I need to stop thinking.”