watching thoughts

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This topic contains 9 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  XenMan 22 hours, 35 minutes ago.

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  • #39147

    catgut
    Participant

    One area of meditation where I struggle is meditation on thoughts. Where I can watch my breath or a physical sensation I feel relate to my thoughts in a way that I have difficulty viewing them with equanimity.

    There is an excersize in the Rick Heller’s book, Secular Meditation where after calming the mind you sit and watch your thoughts, which I have been trying. Most descriptions of this kind of meditation talk of some kind of blank tranquility where a thought arises, we see it and then it passes. My experience is more like a constantly flowing river where even when the dialogue pauses there is still an underlying murmuring. Surely the act of recognising a thought is thought too. Isn’t our the act of intentionally sitting and making the decision to sit and practice based on thought? Isn’t The way we percieve and navigate our experience thought? I find it difficult to separate the thinker from the thought. It’s like an eyeball trying to look at itself.

    So my general experience of this excersize is one of bafflement and exhaustion. I mean, I’ve definitely been aware of my thought patterns through meditation and this has changed their direction or whether I pursue them or not. But I found this particular practice hard work? What are other people’s thoughts on this?

  • #39148

    JimChampion
    Participant

    I’ve just read a book called Unlearning Meditation, after coming across the teaching of Jason Siff last week, and it pretty much addresses exactly the difficulties you’re describing here. There’s relevant stuff you can read on his website http://skillfulmeditation.org/ and on this Australian site [link]

    By trying this approach I’ve been able to get over the impasse I’d created for myself where I felt that I was unable to move from samatha to vipassana in meditation, in pretty much the same way that you describe. I was making hard work of it. Now I feel like I’ve turned a corner, and I’ve got something I can work with.

    I don’t think in doing it justice with this short description, but the approach is to give up with the futile task in meditation of trying to force your thinking to quieten down, and just sit with whatever comes up. Then in the recollection (journalling or verbal description) after each sitting you are likely to notice the arising and passing away. If not in one sudden ‘aha’ moment, maybe the picture will build up gradually over time as you keep up the sittings where you are gentle and receptive, and then journalling afterwards.

    Since I’m started, I’ll explain a bit more what I mean by the impasse. The book that has so far been most useful to me is Larry Roseberg’s “Three steps to awakening”, which is a development on his first book “Breath by breath” and describes his version of Insight meditation. Here’s a paragraph from page 56:

    Remember, You have been learning to allow the breath to flow naturally without imposing a model, form or ideal on it. Now with the same Art of allowing, you open to your own life, your own experience, and watch everything reveal itself. As you sit the entire mind-body process displays itself from breath to breath, and you watch it all arise and pass away, come and go. You are learning to refine the art of seeing, which is no reactive and equanimous – a clear mirror that accurately reflects whatever is put in front of it.

    Sounds lovely, and makes sense in the context of the book and Larry’s teachings, and presumably is a very accurate representation of the way that Larry (a very experienced meditator) sees it. But to me (with relatively little experience of meditation), and presumably to you, it’s not as simple as this because the meditation instructions provided set up a conflict in the way that I implement them – it’s no use telling me to gently guide my attention back to the breath whenever I notice that I’ve wandered away from mindfulness of the breath because any act of forcing myself to think (or not think) is not at all the ‘art of allowing’ which is so helpful to moving into the vipassana part where you watch the arising and passing away of thoughts.

    Later on on that page he says ‘there’s no such thing as a distraction [in meditation] because whatever happens-that’s it.’ Quite right, but I’ve only really ‘got’ what he means by this by trying out the Recollective Awareness approach of Jason Siff, and not by years of trying (too hard) to develop calm and concentration by bringing my awareness back to the breath every time the mind wanders.

    In dharma terms, there’s nowhere in the anapanasati sutra (for example) where the Buddha says you’ve got to sit and continually ‘come back to the breath’. There’s no specific instructions for the technique to use. All that is required is to find a way that works for you. And what works for you (i.e. Whatever helps you to, for example, be aware of the impermanent nature of all dharma) isn’t necessarily going to be the same thing that works for someone else.

    This point about creativity in our Western secular approach to waking up is much more eloquently put by Winton Higgins: see, for instance, this article by him from 2009…

    http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/resources/documents/adaptation-authenticity-and-creativity/

    Hope you find what you’re looking for (or something even better!). At the very least I hope you can sit with a smile naturally arising on your face, rather than a frown.Jim

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 1 month ago by  JimChampion.
    • This reply was modified 2 years, 1 month ago by  JimChampion.
    • This reply was modified 2 years, 1 month ago by  JimChampion.
  • #39166

    catgut
    Participant

    Thanks for the comment Jim. Some interesting things to mull over there. I will have to check that book out.

    Funnily enough, to sit and be aware of whatever presents itself- thoughts, sounds, physical sensations, emotions, whatever, which I guess is Vipassana meditation – I have been practicing recently and feel comfortable with. It’s just this meditation on thoughts specifically which has thrown me. Maybe I’m just not quite sure what a thought is. There have been a few meditations where I have felt uncomfortable because the ambiguity of my experience muddies the task itself. There is a meditation on this website where we experience physical sensations and ask ‘Is this pleasant, unpleasant or neutral?’ Most of the time I found my sensations both pleasant and unpleasant at the same time! Maybe I’m getting too concerned about the specifics and need to embrace the spirit of the thing.

  • #39167

    JimChampion
    Participant

    I find I’m being wary of looking at the idea of “a thought”‘ in favour of considering it as a process that goes on (I.e. Thinking). In the book I mentioned Siff’s experience of traditional vipassana involved noting, which is paying attention to the sense door (the sense door of the mind) rather than paying attention to what it is that is coming in through the sense door (the contents of the thinking). In the recollective awareness approach you do recognise the content of the thinking, but since it’s pretty much impossible to be aware of it at the same time that you’re in the process of thinking you instead recall it later when you are journalling after the meditation period has finished.

    Edit: reading back through what I wrote above, I think a summary of what I’m trying to say is… When in the process of meditation I’m only ever aware of thinking as an almost continuous process, and it isn’t until after meditation that I neatly parcel what went on into discrete “thoughts”. If it helps you get to grips with this, this might be a better translation of what ‘sati’ is, it’s not just the moment to moment mindfulness that you hear so much about, it’s recollection, it’s the present moment plus context (which is where we can get into wisdom) rather than just the pure present moment (which might be calming and focussing, but doesn’t really help out with insight).

    While I’m doing recommendations, Martine Batchelors talks about feeling tone (the pleasant, unpleasant, neutral bits) always make a lot of sense to me, and she seems to have a very relaxed receptive way of meditating… She’s very big on “creative engagement” with your thoughts, you’ll find her talks on the Dharmaseed website and the most recent ones are largely about creative engagement.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 1 month ago by  JimChampion.
    • This reply was modified 2 years, 1 month ago by  JimChampion.
  • #39171

    Mark Knickelbine
    Keymaster

    First off, Catgut, I have the same experience when I observe thoughts. It’s not like individual thoughts pop up and then disappear. Its like a babbling stream of thought energy — even when it quiets way down it’s still simmering, throwing out little thought-fragments.

    I’d make a couple points. We sometimes think “meditation” is equivalent to concentration practice: returning awareness to the breath, for instance. But this is just one aspect. When our concentration develops, the mind becomes clearer and a bit less prone to constant distraction. The metaphor of mud clearing from still water is a good analogy. This is when we can engage in the “art of allowing.” To allow, first we have to enter that mind state of equanimity and kindness. Then we can abide in a state that is open, aware of everything in consciousness but unperturbed by any of it. We may need to go back to our concentration practice from time to time to stay anchored, but then we can let go into open awareness. I hope some of this makes sense.

  • #39172
    Rick Heller
    Rick Heller
    Participant

    Catgut,

    Yes, I do think the meditation on thoughts is very difficult, which is why I put it at the end of the book.

    I first did this meditation when it was led by Mark Knickelbine of the SBA. If I recall correctly, during the first part of the meditation, I silenced my thoughts quite effectively, as often is the case. Then, when I let go of my object of meditation and let thoughts back in, they first came back as single words, then phrases, and only after a while, as full sentences and extended narratives.

    As regards whether noticing a thought is itself a thought, certainly.

    I think the brain can think two or perhaps even three levels.

    There are automatic, repetitive thoughts, which like habits of movement, have something to do with the brain’s basal ganglia.

    There are stimulus-independent thoughts, e.g. random chatter, that are produced by the brain’s default mode network.

    There are goal-directed thoughts, that are produced by the executive network in the frontal lobes.

    Think of the brain as a distributed processor. Thoughts can arise from different areas of the brain for different reasons. And some parts of the brain can notice what other parts of the brain are doing. So yes, we can have thoughts about thoughts.

    Thanks for reading the book!

    Rick

  • #39176

    catgut
    Participant

    Jim- I think I’m getting what you are talking about a bit more. That recollection of moment by moment awareness leading to wisdom is a perspective I had not considered. I have never tried journalling.
    I found the Martine Batchelor talk you mentioned. Now I need to find an hour where I can sit and listen to it!

    Mark- Now that I have been doing this practice for a bit I am settling in to it and starting to get a bit less reactive but there may be times when I need to return to a simple breath watching or compassion meditation.

    Rick- I am really enjoying the book. It’s written in a very easy to read and unassuming way but there’s plenty of stuff get into. I have been practicing each of the sitting meditations for a week or so to get familiar with them and will come back to many of them for a more sustained period. This thought watching meditation I am sticking with for a bit longer because although it has flummoxed me a bit it is also kind of fascinating.

    Thanks for all the replies. There is no sangha or meditation group near to where I live so it’s nice to be able to talk about things with other practitioners, particularly experienced ones 🙂

  • #39449

    Bellatrix
    Participant

    One area of meditation where I struggle is meditation on thoughts. Where I can watch my breath or a physical sensation I feel relate to my thoughts in a way that I have difficulty viewing them with equanimity.

    There is an excersize in the Rick Heller’s book, Secular Meditation where after calming the mind you sit and watch your thoughts, which I have been trying. Most descriptions of this kind of meditation talk of some kind of blank tranquility where a thought arises, we see it and then it passes. My experience is more like a constantly flowing river where even when the dialogue pauses there is still an underlying murmuring. Surely the act of recognising a thought is thought too. Isn’t our the act of intentionally sitting and making the decision to sit and practice based on thought? Isn’t The way we percieve and navigate our experience thought? I find it difficult to separate the thinker from the thought. It’s like an eyeball trying to look at itself.

    So my general experience of this excersize is one of bafflement and exhaustion. I mean, I’ve definitely been aware of my thought patterns through meditation and this has changed their direction or whether I pursue them or not. But I found this particular practice hard work? What are other people’s thoughts on this?

    Awareness is not thought. Thats all I have to say on the matter.

  • #41839
    Shane Presswood
    Shane Presswood
    Participant

    This is wonderful! Thanks all! I too am looking into difference forms of meditation and how to fine tune my practice. I did take a look at the skillfulkmeditation.org site which has now switched over to http://recollectiveawareness.org/. I am awaiting a reply to more webinars of practice I can do with others from there and others. Until then I was wondering what everyone else is finding as a virtual assistance to their practice? Thanks again!

    Shane

  • #41985

    XenMan
    Participant

    Hi guys, new here. I don’t like to jump in on the experts as an unknown, but can offer some experiences.

    I found the Dzogchen ‘construct’ the only way to manage thoughts before reaching the ability to have a clear and empty mine, which is different to Rigpa; a mind of no object or subject which I can still only hold for a minute or so.

    Due to experiences with CBT, Zen and maybe a good natural ability, Dzogchen just worked. It still took an insane amount of time as with all progress.

    I sat, well actually I lounge, and placed the source of my inner monologue or my awareness in the centre of my head. I used the construct of the Dharmakaya as place for the thoughts to be accepted and a destination; for me it was above, but it doesn’t matter. So let the thoughts come and visualise them in your head as appearing from somewhere. They then flow out of your head and away. It is important not to let your inner monologue or any other type of though build on them. I imagined a sphere in the centre where the thoughts flow around before being ‘self-liberated’ and leaving.

    This works because you are rewiring your brain for your thoughts to have a destination and sort of release. In CBT terms it is the same as telling yourself that ‘When I have thoughts they are created by my brain, they are accepted by the Dharmakaya and they are now resolved and don’t have to be held on to.’

    This is another time when there is ‘never a bad meditation session’. Sometimes it is a mess and there are persistent thoughts and others they just flow. Relax and use the Zen perspective of being amazed and in wonderment of being human and experiencing life. Watch and enjoy the show.
    My approach is always a small amount each day to start. Maybe a few minutes, and then build. Stop if you lose focus or your brain hurts too much.

    If you are having real problems, you may need a ‘general admin’ warm up where you clear your mind and bring on your main concerns in life, and deal with those thoughts by dismissing them with simple solutions; ‘not a problem, I’m going to deal with that tomorrow and that is the best I can do.’

    Just another view.

    • This reply was modified 22 hours, 32 minutes ago by  XenMan. Reason: Grammar

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