Mindfulness of thinking

How do I stop my thoughts?  You can't.  But maybe you can do something even better.

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Mindfulness of thinking

March 11, 2015 – Philippians 4:8-9


Finally, beloved,* whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,

whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence

and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about* these things. 9


            The question that came up right away at the beginning of this series on mindfulness was: “How do I stop my thoughts?”  And that may be the most common question in meditation.  I have often heard it on retreats.  It’s a question I myself have asked many times.  But when people asked this question of me, I said, “You can’t.  I’ve been meditating for 20 years.  I haven’t been able to do it yet.”

            It hasn’t been for lack of trying.  What I’ve done far more often than I care to remember is to say to myself, “Why can’t I stop thinking?  When will I ever get this meditation thing right?  You’re such a lousy meditator.  You can’t even control my mind.”

            Of course, that doesn’t work.  It doesn’t help.  I’m no better after that tirade than before.  In fact, it’s probably made the situation worse.  Whenever we expend energy trying to get rid of something, that actually gives the thought more energy.

            As one meditation teachers says, “It is the nature of the mind to think.”  Just as it is the nature of heart to pump and the nature of the lungs to breathe, it is the nature of the mind to think.  This is what the mind was created for.  That’s why I pay my mind the big bucks.  This is what it does best and does it 24 hours a day.  So, it’s unrealistic to think that I can simply sit down and flip a switch that turns off my mind.

            More than one meditation teacher has compared the mind to a new puppy.  Puppies like to play.  They like to explore.  If you want to train a puppy to stay, what is the best way to do that?  Is it to yell at the puppy each time it gets up and wanders off?  Is it to swat the puppy with a rolled up newspaper? 

            No.  The best way is simply and gently to bring the puppy back.  No yelling. No screaming. No threatening.  Simply and gently bring the puppy back to the newspaper.  If you yell at the puppy, you’ll probably end up getting a neurotic puppy.  But, with practice and with patience, the puppy will get better at staying.

            So, be patient with your mind.  Bring your attention back to your breath.  The moment you realize that you’re not in the present moment, you’re back in the present moment.  There’s no need for criticism.  In fact, criticism is counter-productive.  Simply and gently bring your attention back to your breath.

            It’s like strength training. Every time you come back to your breath, you are strengthening your awareness muscles.  Even if all you do in your five minutes or ten minutes is realizing that your mind has wandered and then bringing your attention back to your breath, that is your practice.  Even though it may seem like nothing is happening, this is a very important.  You’re developing your awareness muscles and you’re strengthening your resilience.

            With time, you will have moments when your thoughts seem to be going more slowly.  For me some of those times have been when I have been sitting down and doing formal meditation.  Some of those times have actually come when I have gotten up from my meditation while struggling the whole time with my thinking.  It regularly happens when I am on a meditation retreat and, after three or four days of meditating 16 hours a day, I can tell that my mind is slowing down.   But even with much less time devoted to meditation, you can have moments when your mind has slowed.


            So, one way to respond to our thinking is to change our reaction to our thinking.  A second way to respond is to change our relationship with our thinking.

            I have worked years to overcome the idea that thoughts are the problem.  I am by nature and by training a thinker.  So, perhaps I have struggled more than most with my thoughts.  I give them such weight.  I regard them with such importance.  But they’re not as important as I tend to think.  I need to remind myself of my favorite bumper sticker – “Don’t believe everything you think!”

            Thoughts are a wonderful thing, but when our thoughts are the master rather than the servant, then we are more likely to get into trouble.  If we let them drive the bus, then they easily steer us away from direct experience.  Value your thoughts, but don’t overvalue them.

            It’s not our thoughts that are the problem.  It’s how we relate to our thoughts that is the problem.  So, in addition to being aware of our thinking, it’s helpful also to look for our reaction to the thought.  How much value are we giving our thoughts?  Maybe it would be helpful to say to ourselves, “Thoughts are just thoughts.  They are not facts.  They are just thoughts.” 

We can also ask ourselves, “Is this a pleasant thought?  Is this an unpleasant thought?  Am I not sure?”  Or maybe to ask, “Am I holding on to this thought to make it last longer?  Am I trying to push this thought away to get rid of it?  Am I not sure what to do?”

            You might try imagining your thoughts as a stream going by.  Thoughts come and thoughts endure and thoughts pass away.  Step out of the stream or out of the traffic and watch your thoughts come and go.


            Finally, a third way to respond to our thinking is to change our brains.  As I’ve talked about before, our understanding of the brain has been revolutionized with the fMRI technology – functional magnetic resonance imaging that can take, not just static pictures, but videos of our brains.  These have shown that our brains, rather than being set in our teenage years, actually continue to change our whole lives.  Yes, if you’re going to learn a language, it’s better to be three than to be 83.  Nevertheless, our brains are continually changing, whether we want them to or not even up to the moment of our death.

            Another important finding of this research is that our brains are like Velcro for negative thoughts and Teflon for positive thoughts.  And that has been an important characteristic of our survival.

            As a species, we used to spend much more time outdoors instead of in the safety of the indoors than we do today.  So, if we were walking down a path and we saw a coiled up object in front of us, we could think either, “That must be a rope,” or we could think, “That must be a snake.”  If we think, that it is a snake and it turns out to be a rope, no harm done except that our anxiety goes up.  But if we think it is a rope and it turns out to be a snake, then things could be much worse.  Or, if we hear a rustle in the bushes, do we assume it’s a cute little rabbit or a ravenous grizzly?  That could make the difference between getting a meal and being a meal!

            Our brains have a built-in negativity bias.  I once was invited to tell stories to a group of professional women.  There were eleven in attendance.  We had dinner first.  Then I presented my program. 

            Because it was a professional group, they were invited to fill out evaluations.  Nine of the evaluations were very positive – they loved my storytelling and wanted to make sure to invite me to their school or their place of business.  One of the evaluations was, “He was OK.”  The last evaluation was negative – His voice was condescending.  His stories were simplistic and boring.

            Which evaluation do you think had the biggest impact on me?

            Now, if our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones, we can use this in two ways.  First, we can use it on our loved ones.  I have heard that it takes ten positive statements to a child to offset one negative statement.  I’m not sure we grow out of that ratio.  So we could also apply that to our spouses, our siblings, even our parents.

            But we can also apply this to ourselves.  We can have an affect on how other people think about themselves, we can also affect our own brains.  We can, in fact, change our brains.  All we need to do is to work harder at cultivating positive thoughts.  In this way, we can literally make an impression on our minds.

            Neuroscientist Rick Hanson has developed a method for this he calls, HEAL Yourself.  The word, “HEAL,” is an acronym.

    • Have a positive experience.

    • Enrich it.

    • Absorb it.

    • Link it to a negative experience.


So, first of all, have a positive experience.  It may some physical pleasure like eating a good meal or having a good workout.  It may be a sense of accomplishment for a task you have completed.  It may be a relationship you have, a connection with someone special to you.  If you’re not having a positive experience right now, you might summon someone or something for which you are grateful.

Second, notice what feelings have arisen in you.  Notice how it feels in your body.  Let the experience fill your mind.  Recognize how it is important to you, how it nourishes you, or how it the difference that it makes in your life.

Third, stay with that experience for a while.  Don’t rush off to the next thing.  Take ten or fifteen seconds to let it sink it.  Hold it in your heart.

Finally, if you choose, link it to a negative experience – a time when you felt alone or in grief.  If the negative experience starts to take over, let it go, and just return to the positive one.


So, let’s try this now:

Get comfortable where you are.  Take an upright posture that is also relaxed.  Bring your attention to your breath.  Whenever your mind wanders to thoughts or sounds or sensations, and you realize your mind has wandered, simply bring it back without judgment.

Now think of a positive experience you’ve had recently – a meal you’ve eaten, a compliment you’ve received, a task completed.  Or think of something you are grateful for – good health or a roof over your head.  Or maybe bring to your mind a special relationship you have with someone, even with a pet that you have.  Or it may even be the feeling of your breath coming in and out in a way that is soothing.

When you focus on that positive experience, ask yourself what your feelings are when you bring it to mind.  Do you feel happy, calm, excited, content, strong, loved?  And where do you feel it in your body?  In your chest?  In your belly?  In your fingers and toes?  Somewhere else?

Now let your mind and heart rest in that experience.  Enjoy it.  Savor it.  Let it sink in.  Hold it in the center of your heart.

If you wish, link this positive experience to a negative one – when you have been criticized by someone else, or felt lonely and unconnected.

Then come back to the positive experience.  And come back to your breath.


Although Hanson doesn’t talk about it, I think you could also use any experience when you feel close to God – nature or worship, prayer or Bible study.  Maybe you have spent time outside near a quiet lake or watched a gorgeous sunset.  Maybe you’ve been to an inspiring worship service or a moving Bible study.  Or maybe you can simply let your heart and mind rest on a favorite Bible passage – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  “There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.”  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

Paul says,Finally, beloved,* whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,

whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence

and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about* these things. 9

            We can think about these things.  We can rest our hearts and minds on these things.  Without ignoring negative thoughts, we can cultivate positive thoughts, positive states of mind, states of mind that are inclined to whatever is true and honorable and just.

            And the God of peace will be with you.