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Thoughts During Meditation? Go Fish

What's in the aquarium?

Key points

  • Thoughts are phenomena of mind that can frustrate meditation practice and even derail the introductory meditator.
  • Thoughts are actually more complex events, which include reactions and judgments that can add to the trouble.
  • These event "sets" can be examined using some fishy metaphors along the way.
 Pieonane, altered with photomania
Source: Pieonane, altered with photomania

Of all the phenomena of experience that grace, or terrorize, our minds as we sit in meditation, thoughts may be the most tricky to attend. Especially for the newbie meditator in an earnest attempt to focus on the humble act of breathing, thoughts can be truly distracting—so distracting that some folks get fed up, and then give up. An aquarium-owning student of mine compared it to trying to observe a single angelfish, or the flow of bubbles from the little plastic dude in the scuba suit, as a school of neon tetras zigzag by and blur the whole scene.

Helping patients and students with what to do with distracting thoughts in meditation, let alone ourselves in our own practices, could use some attention. In an attempt to keep the cruise short (I get seasick), this post will cover the nature of thoughts from a mind's-eye perch (heh). Arising thoughts leave ripples of reactivity that we can become more adept at recognizing via mindful practice. The alternative is (wait for it ...) floundering in distraction.

Wade in with me for a moment, just for the halibut. I apologize for the aquatic puns; I can't really kelp it.

Run the footage, Le Capitaine Cousteau. Zee A thought swims into the aquascape of our current awareness. Like any other fin-omenon of mind (ouch), we react to it, often with some mix of physical and emotional tone.

(Mixing metaphors, in Practical Mindfulness, I shorthand this as the "soundtrack" to the thought-based "video" of the event. Back in the pool, kids.)

Just to fill out but perhaps complicate the (pi-)scene, that reaction to or "spin" on the thought often includes ... more thought. Yes, thought about a thought. It's usually a secondary judgment of the thought: on its validity, or its association to other thoughts and feelings. Some of these reactions catch the big one, but others are fishy in terms of accuracy.

So: a simple thought is not so simple. Each involves, at least in theory, a school of related reactions in body, heart, and head. Repeat these [event, reaction(s)] couples enough and they can become conditioned together, a package labeled as "that's mine." To layer more reactivity, further judgment may follow, judging this package and its effect: often an upsetting, frustrating, "that again, in my head." A pearl of accreted events and effects—event, reaction, judgment—is even harder to observe and identify.

Especially if recycled early and often in childhood, we can deeply identify with these thought/reaction "pattern sets" by their persistent recurrence and reinforcement. This is especially true about our thoughts about ourselves. The identification becomes personal and tightly bound. "That's mine" becomes "that's me." These barnacles are often distortions in terms of any validity, but are bound tightly to our hulls from reinforcement. They become ever harder to scrape off in terms of our self-definition.

What to do, short of an Ahab-esque, mindless whale chase? Dry-dock the boat? (Or, sink?) That's for the next post: some tactics in managing thoughts that intrude on meditation. Surfing the marine metaphor, one key trick is ... catch and release. And sometimes, turning into the wave is worth trying.


Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL:Mango Publishing.