The Fly animation offers a very graphic depiction of what happens in our minds when we fight our thinking. No matter how many times we are reminded, that meditation is not about getting rid of thoughts, or silencing our minds, when thoughts arise, we take up arms against them. Ultimately, we enter into battle with ourselves, which as the animation shows, is both exhausting and counterproductive. It multiplies the thinking process, we enter into relationship with the thoughts, and we are hooked.
It’s amazing isn’t it, how we take our thoughts so seriously, invest in them, solidify them, make them real. Mark Twain author of the literary classic, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, captured this well when he said, ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.’ Most of us spend our lives immersed in a sea of thoughts, unquestioningly. Anxious thoughts arise, and we label ourselves as an anxious person, worried thoughts arise, and we label ourselves as a worried person, and on it goes, we become completely identified with our thinking and subsequently miserable. The sad thing is, that often these thought patterns bear no relation to the reality we are actually experiencing in the moment. The fact is, we don’t really know what is going to happen in the future, and we cannot change the past.
A real life scenario. I am teaching and trying out a new activity in class. I have a group of eleven people looking at me expectantly. Until now, all has gone smoothly, the group is engaged and learning lots. I stand up and move to the white board. The thought arises unbidden, ‘ I hope this is going to work.’ My heart rate gradually increases as does my breathing. A train of thoughts follow, again unbidden, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’… ‘My god, they’ll think I don’t know what I’m doing.’ My heart rate continues to increase, as does the speed of my breath. I am sweating, dark patches swelling under the armpits of my freshly pressed shirt. ‘They won’t trust me as a teacher.’…‘ I’ll get it all wrong.’… ‘My reputation will be ruined.’… ‘‘I’ll never work again’. All this in a split second. The fact is the new activity works really well, people learn a lot and we move on to the next thing. But what if I had believed it? I don’t actually know what would have happened, but I suspect that my confidence would have been knocked, my voice betraying my nervousness, and the activity may not have gone so well. All because of a train of thoughts that wasn’t actually real!
It is not that thoughts in themselves are a problem. Thoughts are amazing, ‘things?’ Some are genius, inspired, creative, altruistic, kind and productive. A meditation teacher I know, puts it this way, ‘ A fire can either warm your house, or burn it down.’ So it is with thinking, it can be both supportive and destructive. Take anxiety, the mind is involved in being highly creative, imagining all the worst case scenarios, vividly. The problem is, that as we are thinking, we experience all the accompanying fight/flight hormonal and nervous system changes that go along with the thoughts. Over the long term, this can take a significant toll on our health. And so, in meditation we develop and strengthen the skill of letting thoughts come and go, regardless of whether we like them or not. In this way we gradually loosen the habit of investing in our thoughts, and learn to relate to them differently, as ‘just’ thoughts.
Most of us, particularly when we are learning to meditate, notice that we are thinking, and a judgement arises, ‘ I can’t meditate’ or ‘This meditation is not ‘working.’ However the practice is, to notice that we are thinking and to cultivate patience, kindness and persistence in guiding our attention back to the object of meditation, whether that be sensations or the breath. The irony is that each time we notice we are thinking is actually a success, because it is in that very moment that we are strengthening our capacity to pay attention. Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein speaks to this in a conversation journalist Dan Harris: