There is a popular misconception that the aim of mindfulness is to somehow stop our thoughts or switch off the mind. Perhaps we believe that to be enlightened or free we must live in a constant state of no-thinking.
It’s a nice idea, and one I spent many years pursuing, but the truth is that rather than trying to prevent thoughts from happening, we are simply cultivating a radical new relationship to them.
In fact, when we talk about our mental health we are actually referring to the relationship we have with our thoughts. This relationship is often extremely unhealthy and dysfunctional because we feel so trapped in the stories, beliefs and dramas which rule our mind.
The UK Mental Health Report released in May this year states that only 13% of people reported good levels of mental health. This is clear evidence that our culture is suffering from a fundamental lack of the kind of self-awareness that practices such as Mindfulness offer.
Such mental training is vital because our minds are where our experience of life happens. So many of us feel that there is little or no distance between us and our thoughts, and live our lives completely identified with our mental traffic, unable to free ourselves from it.
Our lives are the direct result of every thought, attitude and belief we have picked up and acted out. When we watch the mindless destruction and violence on the news, we see people blindly acting out the content of their minds.
To identify with thoughts is to cultivate a deep sense of distraction, dissatisfaction and disempowerment.
The good news is that we can change our relationship to the mind. It is not an easy practice but with patience and consistency we can begin to open up a gap between us and our thoughts. The wider the gap, the less controlled we feel by the mind.
It all begins with nurturing metacognitive attention, our inherent ability to notice thoughts as they happen. The more we can notice thoughts the more we are able to detach from them in real-time, and shift our focus, intention and interest out of the mind, and into our raw present moment experience.
This simple act of noticing, shifting, noticing, shifting, begins to dissolve habits, reactions and unhelpful behaviour because they are no longer being fed the gourmet meal of attention they once enjoyed. Instead, they are fed scraps, and what can live on that?
By taking a step back and resting as the passive observer of thoughts, rather than their owner, we can allow them to come and go like clouds moving across the sky, without latching onto them as “me.”
We’re able to notice thoughts, without having to become those thoughts. The effect this has on our lives is profound.
We can notice thoughts because they are objects. They are more subtle than rocks, cats and chairs, but can be noticed in exactly the same way. In fact, mindfulness could not exist if we were not able to notice our thoughts.
The more we view thoughts as impersonal traffic, passing through our awareness, the more they lose their inherent “stickiness.”
One way we can boost our metacognitive attention is through the practice of noting and labelling thoughts as they arise.
Either during your formal sitting practice or whilst engaged in daily activites, see if you can notice the moment you become absorbed in a thought, and then lightly label it as “thought” or “thinking,” before shifting your focus back into your breath or the task at hand.
The act of noting and labelling the kinds of thoughts which seduce us has two powerful effects. Firstly, by noticing the thought we stand as the observer of it, boosting our metacognitive attention, and secondly, by labelling it we come to directly know our own mind as it manifests in each moment of our lives.
We catch ourselves thinking and note it as “thinking” or “worrying” or “remembering” or “fantasising” or “planning,” and become acutely aware of the habits, traits, beliefs and attitudes which constitute this person called “me.”
This is how we begin to really see the mind in every moment, and if we can see it then we no longer have to be it.
The value of this practice is that it doesn’t matter if our minds are noisy or still. If they are noisy with drama then we can note the thoughts as “drama” and return to the beautiful breath. If we notice that the mind is completely still, then we can note it as “still” and return to the beautiful breath.
Busy mind, still mind, just keep noticing;
You are neither.