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Thoughts During Meditation? Go Fish, Redux

Part 2: Catch and release.

Key points

  • Thoughts are phenomena of mind that can frustrate meditation practice.
  • A person can manage thoughts during meditation by noting them and resetting back to the intention of observation.
  • Thoughts arise as a condition of mind. With each thought can come a reaction, or ripples of them, in the body and heart.
Pieonane, altered with photomania
Source: Pieonane, altered with photomania

This is the return trip of a two-part post on the humble topic of thoughts. In particular, it's about how thoughts, however useful to us, can also be intensely distracting in meditation practices. And how we can help ourselves, our patients, and our students with what to do with them.

(I've adopted a nautical theme in a metaphoric nod to a head-as-fish-bowl sense of our minds, awash in ebbing and flowing critters. Not koi on such matters, I will carp on in this style, however out of tuna it may become. My ahi-pologies in advance. Ahoy!)

The first leg of the trip covered the not-so-simple nature of a sample thought and the waves of subsequent stuff that can happen in mind with each one, often generating still more distracting stuff to try to harpoon. I promised a return home with some responses and tactics in managing these intrusions on meditation practice.

Summing up Part I: Thoughts arise as a condition of mind. With each thought can come a reaction, or ripples of them, in the body and heart. We may need to navigate the subsequent waves quickly: of conditioned judgment about that thought/reaction(s) dyad and even more personalized identification of that mix as a persistent, often negative aspect of our very selves.

It can be like getting swamped in a riptide, then smacked again just as we come up for air. Yet, sometimes it's just a thought that comes and goes, with minimal extra drama. With low tide, it's a pause for a side trip (but not a three-hour cruise.)

Let me address a pet (no, not a goldfish) peeve of mine: the term "thought stopping." This refers to a cognitive/behavioral tactic that aims to have the individual intervene when a negative, unpleasant, or intrusive thought arises, using some countering action. A rubber band snap on the wrist, saying "no" to yourself aloud or internally, substituting a more pleasant thought in mind, or imagining a stop sign are some common examples of these antidotes.

To me, the very idea of "thought stopping" is (wait for it...) a red herring, at least in terms of the unfortunate promotion of the term – more on this in Practical Mindfulness. Minds think; it's what we do next that is in play here. Many folks try to stop their thoughts, assuming that an emptied mind is the ideal. Of course, they fall short. Another thought arises, to pile on: "I suck at thought stopping." Not a lesson in positive reinforcement.

Mindful practices rest on the wall-eye (heh) basics of simple observation of the mind at the moment. We can't stop thoughts, but we can observe pauses and reductions in the flow of them. To the extent we attempt to stop thoughts, that's about not chasing inherent thought phenomena with additional, self-generated thoughts upon thoughts (about the thoughts.) With mindful practice, we better identify the usual reactive flow of chatter. We can gradually detach a bit from and hopefully relax the branding of that stuff as me.

So much for that pet peeve. (Floating on its side, awaiting the funereal flush. At our house, the family saluted the toilet and recited en masse, "it had a nice life.") What can we do about thoughts in meditation? Here are three considerations.

  • If the aim is to manage thoughts that come and go, distracting enough on one's intended object of observation (like the breath, heartbeat, or emotion) to grind one's gears, then catch and release is a good tactic. Ignoring a persistent phenomenon of mind rarely is effective. Instead, attend briefly – catch it with a bare, "there's a thought," or just "thought..." Noting it in awareness is (usually) enough to settle in and reset back at the intention of observation. Next breath, please.
  • If the thought intruder is making more waves, maybe that thought has some meaning to it. An intermediate tactic to consider is a slightly longer hold before release. Specifically, I suggest a quick drop-in plunge into the rest of the field – that is, how the moment being yanked thought-ward is operating in the somatic and emotional aspects of experience, and even in the sense of awareness itself. An intentional breath directed to the physical state and emotional weather co-existent with the thought(s) can be calming – a fuller seascape of the moment and then moving back to the plan. It can also be informative in terms of recognizing and anticipating the fuller experiences that co-occur with particular thoughts, especially repetitive or provocative ones.
  • Suppose that thought set (ideation, emotional and somatic effect, and follow-on judgments) is filling the mind space, and/or attempts at a quick note-and-move-on or drop into it attending won't allow release and return to, say. In that case, the breath, sometimes turning into a wave, is worth trying. Maybe this intrusion is worth a change in intention and our full attention. Toss out attending to the breath (or coax it to the back of the aquarium, near that smudge of algae needing cleaning in the corner), and attend directly to the thought.

Mind you, this is not "thinking about the thought," but instead a step back from the thought, using it as an object to observe. It's a fuller "this thought... how does it register in the body? In my emotional heart?" Losses of attention on this target can be common, but the redirect is a brief couple of breaths, then back to the thought object. It's harder to do but often fruitful, a game attempt to watch the other chatter that arises – thoughts about the thoughts, but you wading back and treading water, just watching the flow. This slippery fish wants your attention, so give it some.

OK, one last option: Sometimes thoughts flood us in meditation, regardless of our tactics. Meditation can be an ebbing-and-flowing struggle at times, but not, well, waterboarding. OK, to swim to shore.


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