Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of January 27, 2014

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Noticing Thoughts as Thoughts

(Mind and Thought: Part 1)

To see our thoughts as thoughts simply means to realize that the thought we are inwardly seeing or hearing is just a thought and nothing more than a thought. It is not who we are. It does not necessarily represent our views or values. It has no power over us, except the power we give it. We all know that we do not need to act on our thoughts. But beyond that, we do not need to believe or believe in our thoughts. We do not need to accept that our thoughts express anything significant about us. We are no more our thoughts than we are our breath or our pulse. But as long as we do not notice our thoughts, or notice only their meaning and get enthralled by that semantic stream, we are chained to them. Stepping back, we go beyond their meaning to see them with our mind’s eye for what they are: just a series of mental words or images. This is what we mean by noticing our thoughts as thoughts, which is a major step toward inner freedom.

In trying to see our thoughts without getting lost in them, it helps to set aside time to sit quietly, get in contact with our body and its sensation, be there in our body, and then turn our attention to noticing our thought stream, with a light touch, so as not to disturb the thoughts too much. We notice an individual thought start, happen, and end. And then we notice the next one and the one after that. All the while we stay grounded in our body to keep us here in this moment and prevent us from floating away down that thought stream. If we do come to and realize that we have fallen into our thoughts instead of observing them, then we simply and without self-recriminations return to being in contact with our body and seeing our thoughts.

One of the big challenges in the practice of noticing thoughts as thoughts is the very wide range of our thoughts, in terms of type and subject matter. Inevitably and without warning, one comes along that grabs us firmly or lulls us to sleep and away we go. For example, when we are sitting in this meditation on thoughts, we will of course have thoughts, some of which might be like “why am I sitting here?” “Am I doing this right?” “How can I see my thoughts better?” “This is boring.” Such thoughts often do not register as thoughts while we are observing. They seem to part of the observation process. But they, like all the others, are just thoughts.

Some time outside of formal sitting meditation, when you want to practice seeing your thoughts as thoughts, try this. Read something. And as you read pay attention to the sounds of the words you are reading as they make themselves known in your mind. With your inward ear, you can hear them like you would any other thought. But because this is intentional and structured, you may have a better chance of noticing them as thoughts. Even though these are not “your” thoughts, but those of the author you are reading, it is still good practice for recognizing thoughts as thoughts.

Alternatively, just stop whatever you are doing for one minute. Use that minute to notice your thoughts, without trying to change them in any way. Put your attention into your mind and see the thoughts coming and going of their own accord. Let them come and let them go. Just see what is there, moment to moment. This practice has a subtle, slow, but profound effect on us: it leads to inner freedom.

The more settled into our body and the more relaxed we are, the better our chances of seeing as thoughts the words and images passing through our mind. If we are inwardly rushed or in some state of agitation, anxiety, or other difficult emotion, we are unlikely to have enough free attention to notice our thoughts as thoughts. Instead we will just be swept along by them. Then thoughts come and go, while we believe them and take them at face value, if we notice them at all. In this state, which is our usual state, our thoughts shape us and run our life. And because our universe of thoughts is inconsistent, self-contradictory, reactive, random, and even chaotic, our life takes on similar flavors. There is no freedom in that.

Take the example of worry thoughts. Perhaps you have a situation that is both significant and uncertain. You worry about it. Your thoughts keep returning to the situation, ruminating on it. And because you believe in your thoughts, again and again you let the worry thoughts grab you. But if you see these worry thoughts as thoughts, you do not need to go with them. You can allow them to arise and pass by without getting caught up in the worry. Yes, you take these thoughts as information to consider and perhaps act on. You do what you can or need or choose to do about the situation. Beyond that, the worrying only wastes your time and energy and colors your life in a troubled hue. So seeing your thoughts as just thoughts, your worry as just worry, lightens your load and helps you toward inner freedom.

For this week, practice seeing your thoughts as thoughts.


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