Integrative Pathways to Healing

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction in Chicago

Here is a brief meditation exercise you can experiment with to explore mindfulness of thoughts

“A thought is harmless unless we believe it.  It’s not our thoughts but our attachment to our thoughts that causes suffering.  Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring.  A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.”   Byron Katie.

As a teacher of meditation, I hear from friends and students that they cannot meditate because they can’t stop thinking.  Well, neither can I or any other human being – meditator or non-meditator.  

What is a thought? The ability to think is a necessary element of our lives. We need to plan, make decisions, and communicate.  Although a lot of our daily life is spent listening to our thoughts, how we respond to them or believe them has an impact on our ability to be kind to ourselves and others.  Oftentimes, when we have a recurring thought about ourselves (self judgement), we begin to believe the thought. That is just the way the brain works – each time this thought arises in your mind it becomes stronger.  So, it is easy to get caught up in self -criticism.

Thoughts are mental events that are often reactions to our environment.  For example, if you are anxious and someone cuts you off in traffic, your reaction may be to honk the horn, or communicate with angry gestures or words.  However, if you are in a happy mood, feeling good about yourself and someone cuts you off in traffic, you may be able to just let it be, without reacting to the minor disturbance.  

Thoughts are not facts, but they can easily affect mood. Thoughts can bring us down or bolster us up; and we can, through mindfulness practices that help us to observe our thoughts, increase our capacity to be less reactive and self- critical.  Observing your thoughts can be helpful for understanding where we get stuck in self judgement or worry.  

Here is a brief meditation exercise you can experiment with to explore mindfulness of thoughts and maybe you can become more aware of what you are thinking.

Exercise:  What am I Thinking?

Time: 10 + minutes

NOTE: One of the methods of developing mindfulness of thoughts and thinking is to note when thinking and thoughts take you away from your breath, or another attentional object of meditation.  If you have explored mindfulness practices that focus on the breath or body, thoughts and thinking take you away from the object of attention.  In this exercise, we will note the content of the thoughts that distract you.  Remember it is the nature of mind to think a lot and that you are not doing anything wrong when this happens.  Rather, you are developing the capacity to see the thoughts as they come and go. As observable events.  Try this practice several times over the next week, or as often you like.

1). Determine the length of time you would like to meditate.  Ten minutes or more is recommended.  Set a timer if you like.

2). Begin by coming to a comfortable seated position in a chair, on a cushion, or laying down if that is best for you to find stillness and ease in your body. Lowering your gaze or closing your eyes.  Turn your attention inward.  

3). Begin by taking 3-5 conscious breathes, a little deeper and fuller than natural to help direct your attention inside and relax into stillness.

4). Feel your body and notice if it is comfortable.  Adjust as you need to find ease and comfort.

5). Begin to pay attention to the natural breath and focus on sensing the movement of breath in and out of your body for a few minutes.

6). When you notice that the focus of attention on the breath has wandered, notice what distracted you.  It may be a sound, or a body sensation, or a thought.

7). As you notice what the thoughts are that drew your attention away, label it or categorize it:  Is it a memory?  Is it about the future?  Is it a worry?  Is it a judgement?

8). Return your focus to the breath.  

9). Continue to note and observe your thoughts for the remainder of the practice, returning to your breath each time.

Reflect: After you practice this exercise several times consider:
     -What types of thoughts are common for you?
     -Are you able to let a thought go?
     – What types of thoughts are harder to let go?