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Mindful : December 2015
Because instructions for meditation include “let- ting thoughts go,” you might legitimately worry about “losing” thoughts during meditation that may otherwise have solved global warming, made recreational time travel possible, or composed the next game-changing hit single. One way to deal with this anxiety about the speeding train of genius leaving you behind is to turn toward the fear of losing that great idea. As usual, explore how it really I have a lot of cool thoughts. Why would I want to just let them go? feels instead of letting its storyline become a momen- tous great big deal. If it’s really important, write it down. No one will arrest you. Or, you can bend the rules altogether and write down every single thought you have during a medita- tion session. If you examine the list after the fact, do you imagine you’ll find that the thoughts are unlikely to ever be repeated? If they were truly important, don’t you think they might return later in the day of their own accord? ● Should I be trying to stop my thinking and clear my brain? You’ve hit on the greatest of all urban legends related to mindfulness (and one that resists repeated debunking): that the goal is to “clear the mind,” as if meditation were the top-of-the- line Dyson vacuum for the brain. “Look,” the spiffily dressed engineer with the plumy accent would say, “there’s nothing whatsoever left in there, not like those inferior mind-cleaning devices!” This is, though, a misconception that’s completely understandable. Meditators know that trying to stop thought is like trying to stop a steamroller with a feather. On your mind’s LinkedIn page, its expertise is listed as thinking. And yet, to buy into the idea that the mind is always thinking—even when we’re not aware of it—you have to admit that you’re not in complete, conscious control of yourself at all times. This can be a truly frightening proposition. Yet, one of the great insights of mindfulness is recognizing that your lack of total control over the wanderings of your mind doesn’t necessarily make you weaker. Face facts: Thoughts tend to happen in a torrent without our conscious input. One study shows we are lost in rumination just shy of 50% of our waking hours! Trying to control every thought encourages you to fixate on your favorite thoughts and discard, ignore, or suppress your less enjoyable thoughts. That kind of mental wrestling match is taxing—and those thoughts we’re pushing away are busily working in the basement to come up and bug you as soon as the door is pried open—so it’s no wonder we might think a BR AIN TOTALLY CLEARED OF THOUGHTS would be desirable. In meditation, we’re making a gentle effort to maintain focus on a particular object such as the breath as a support or anchor for the wander- ing mind. Each time the mind wanders—as it most assuredly will—as soon as you notice, you actively, kindly, disengage from the thought and return to the breath. No need to judge ourselves for thinking. It’s all part of practice. Each time we notice we have engaged a thought and we release it and return to the breath we strengthen the muscle of concentration and focus. In this way, you gradually steady the mind, and each time you notice the thought and let it move on, you learn a little bit more about the workings of your mind, and the relentless voice in your head is slightly more tamed. 10 9 Tara Healey is program director and Jonathan Roberts is operations manager for Mindfulness Based Learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. December 2015 mindful 57