There is a common misconception that meditation requires us to clear our mind of thoughts. I have seen the instruction summarized as: sit comfortably, clear your mind, and focus on your breath. Now, this sets-up the notion that if we have thoughts during meditation, then we must be doing it wrong. A thinking mind is a healthy mind. If we ever stop thinking completely, then we are very likely dead. That is certainly not my objective.
The point is not to stop having thoughts, but rather to stop letting our thoughts control us.
When we sit in meditation, we allow everything to be as it is in this moment without trying to change it. We open our awareness to any sounds, sensations, thoughts or emotions that we are experiencing without judging them or labeling them as “good”, “bad”, “boring”, “exciting”, etc. We have been conditioned since birth that we need to always be doing something if we’re ever going to achieve anything. The idea of doing nothing as a means of gaining greater control over our emotional well-being flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught.
The process of learning to meditate correctly is as much about undoing as is it is doing. Depending on the technique we are practicing, we may be instructed to bring our awareness to our breath or a mantra. In a perfect world, one where our bodies and minds were completely free from stress, it would be easy to maintain this awareness without being distracted by thoughts, sensations, sounds, or emotions. In the real world, all of us will find ourselves pulled away by any or all these things. Far from this being a failure on our part, it presents us with our greatest opportunity.
Imagine an Olympic gymnast gracefully walking across a narrow beam. If we were to zoom-in closely, we would see constant micro-adjustments in their feet, hands, arms, and hips, all to maintain balance. It is these repeated corrections that create balance and equanimity. The same can be said for meditation. Whenever a thought enters our mind, we simply acknowledge it, and allow it to fade, returning our awareness and attention to our breath or mantra. Every time we do this, we strengthen our capacity to remain in the present moment, and create space to choose how or if we wish respond without resorting to unconscious reactions or conditioned responses.
When the mind releases stress, it does so by generating thoughts. The frequency of thoughts corresponds to the amount of stress being released. Since we all would benefit from carrying less stress, we don’t want to interfere with this process by trying not to think, or altering our thoughts. As we practice over time we will experience thought-filled as well as deeper meditations. Neither is more beneficial than the other. So the next time you sit down to meditate, remember the gymnast, let your thoughts flow, and embrace the opportunity to find your balance.