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In this lesson, I talk about all the thoughts that come up for us in mediation, and how to work with them.

You’ve probably noticed in your meditation sessions that your mind thinks a lot! Our brains are thought factories, constantly churning out thoughts, and in meditation, we’re not trying to stop the thoughts or clear our minds of all thoughts. They will continue to come up from our thought factories.

What meditation helps us to do is to be more aware of the monkey mind, jumping around from one thought to another, ceaselessly. We can become more awake to what is happening, both with our thoughts and also, sometimes, the other things in front of us. By becoming aware of the thoughts, we can learn how to work with them. We don’t have to get lost in the dreams of our thoughts so often, we can keep waking up, and even sometimes watch the thoughts without attaching to them.

So here’s the practice … when you’re meditating and you notice that you’ve gotten lost in your thoughts … just notice this and label it “thinking”. Don’t feel the need to push away or destroy the thoughts … just label them, and return to the breath. That’s all.

There’s a tendency we have to be harsh on ourselves, to notice that we’ve gotten lost in thought and to criticize ourselves. It’s important to develop a kinder attitude toward ourselves. Instead of thinking that the “thinking” you’ve noticed is “bad,” try to just label it with a friendly attitude, and relax a little. This is just how the mind works, so try to find gentleness and patience with yourself. Lighten up, maybe even smile or laugh about it. It’s not a big deal.

Let’s imagine our minds are like a baby whose attention wanders, and we’re trying to feed it a little food … we can yell at the baby for not being focused on the food, but that’s not going to be helpful. Instead, we can be kind to the baby, be loving, and just ask the baby to return to the food. Just bring the baby’s attention back.

You might even wander for the entire meditation session, and wake up and find yourself back in the moment at the end of the session. That’s OK. Just smile and notice what you did, label it “thinking,” and then try to count at least a few breaths. With practice, you’ll learn to bring yourself back, with friendliness, after just a few moments. Label it “thinking,” and return to the breath.

Finally, you might be able to notice the thoughts arising but not follow them … you are in the present moment and you can see the thought arising. This doesn’t need to be labeled “thinking” because you’re still awake, just watching the thought. You can see it floating across your mind like a cloud, but you don’t need to grab it or get lost in it. It just floats by the vastness of your mind. This might take awhile to learn, but this is a part of awakeness.

So your practice is to be gentle and friendly with yourself, not harsh … it’s to not expect “no thoughts” but instead to just notice them … and when you get lost in them, kindly bring yourself back and label it “thinking”. That’s all!


Please complete one of these exercises:

  1. Beginner: As you notice thoughts coming up during meditation, try to simply notice them, and then label them “thinking.” Then simply return to your breath. Write about this experience in your mindfulness journal.
  2. Advanced: In addition to the exercise above, try to use your thoughts as the focus of your meditation. Instead of focusing on the breath, for at least a few minutes, when a thought comes up, notice the thought … stay awake instead of getting lost with the thought … and just watch the thought arise and dissipate in the vast expanse of your mind. You can return to your breath and then when the next thought comes up, watch this as well (while staying awake).