Awareness of Thinking

Thoughts are a natural function of our mind. Another function of the mind is to be aware. The mind does its job of producing thoughts and emotions, and the mind also can know thoughts and emotions. Since the mind both produces thoughts and is aware, sometimes we might think both those things can’t happen simultaneously, believing thatif I’m thinking, I can’t be mindful. But it ispossible to be mindful while thinking. 

We usually cannot simply choose to stop thinking. Thinking is a conditioned phenomenon. Yet we can cultivate conditions that will reduce the number of thoughts in the mind, and meditation is one of those conditions. And even when thoughts continue to arise, we can learn to be mindful of them. Awareness of thinking is particularly supportive for daily life. If we have the idea that we cannot be mindful while thinking, huge chunks of our daily life are out of bounds for mindfulness.

So the first thing to recognize, when we notice that we’re thinking, is: this is the mind doing its job.A thought is just a thought. We can very simply be aware that thinking is happening.With this simple recognition, we are becoming aware of the natural functioning of the mind: the mind is thinking. 

Thoughts arise in the present moment. Thoughts of the past are not actually in the past. They are happening right now, in the present moment. Thoughts of the future are not in the future, they are arising now, in the present moment. Sometimes we can recognize a thought is just a presently arising phenomenon,  but it’s easy to be seduced by the content of thoughts. Thoughts seem to create their own little world, and then we move into that world and inhabit it. It’s a little bubble of delusion. We have a habit of moving into that thought bubble and losing mindfulness. But it is not necessary to lose mindfulness while thinking. 

We can be aware of thinking and at the same time know the content of thinking. When we are meditating we sometimes have the option to set aside the content, to just let it go. Yet, there are times in our day when we need to think; this is part of how we function as human beings! So at times it can be helpful to acknowledge the content of thinking.

My teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya gives a suggestion for exploring awareness of thinking in daily life: let 50% of the attention be connected to the content of the thought and what is happening in connection to that content, and 50% of the attention be connected to how the thoughts are affecting us. There’s a thought, and there’s the effect that it has; we can be aware of both.

In meditation practice, we might be able to disengage from the content of thoughts and set them aside, yet sometimes we don’t have much control over setting them aside and they continue anyway. If that’s happening, rather than getting frustrated and trying to force the thoughts to stop, we can be curious about how the thoughts are affecting us, right now. We can ask ourselves, how is thinking affecting the heart, mind, and body? Is it creating tension? Are there bodily sensations? Are there emotions arising? Investigating how thoughts affect us is a broadening of awareness; not pushing the thoughts away, but rather checking in more widely with our experience:How are these thoughts affecting me? 

Sometimes thoughts can be very powerful, and we might find it impossible to be mindful of them or even of how they affect us. If you find when trying to be mindful of thinking that you are caught by the content and lose mindfulness, that’s a good time to try putting your attention elsewhere, perhaps on some clear and obvious physical experience that is somewhat easy to stay mindful of. 

If the thoughts are very emotionally charged, it might not be helpful to turn to awareness of breathing. Since the breath is often affected by strong emotions, attending to the breath when emotions are very strong might simply pull you back to being caught by the emotions and thoughts.  Choose a different physical experience instead. Connection with awareness of seeing or hearing can be helpful, or perhaps with awareness of an obvious body sensation away from the visceral part of the body, such as contact of the hands or feet. 

If the content of thought is not so strong, one helpful way of being aware of thinking is to noticehowthinking is happening, rather than connecting with the content. I sometimes call this noticing the “modality” of the thoughts. There are many different ways that the mind thinks: it may think with images, or as if one is speaking to oneself, or as if things are being heard, like listening to radio. Thinking can also happen through a kinesthetic sense in the body.  At times I find it useful to use a quiet mental note around the modality. For example, if thoughts are happening as images, I use the note seeing. I know I’m not actually visually seeing, but it is a way of acknowledging how the mind is aware of thoughts. Seeing is happening. Or hearing is happening. Using a note that acknowledges the modality rather than the content can help us to be aware of thinking more easily. 

Keep a playful attitude about experimenting and exploring whether it’s possible to be mindful of thoughts, before you assume it is not possible! More often than we think, we can be aware of thinking.