Question:

How do you use mindfulness at crunch time? Say you’ve got an unwanted thought bothering you during the day – what helps you to keep looking at it from the outside rather than get sucked in?

Andy’s answer:

This is a great question and one I’m sure lots of people will have asked themselves.

In many ways it touches on the very essence of mindfulness. It’s a funny thing, because mindfulness is really about just one moment at a time. And yet the way it is often talked about is this big concept, the idea of being mindful throughout our entire meditation or throughout our entire life. This is fine as an idea, but it’s not terribly helpful in reality.

So, a thought arises in the mind. If we are not aware of it, by definition we are ignorant of it. This isn’t a conscious thing, we simply don’t see it. But if we are aware of it, then we have a choice. We can resist it, wish it hadn’t arisen and try and make it go away. We can engage with it, happy that it’s arisen and get carried away with it all. Or, alternatively, we can take a mindful approach and seeing the thought clearly, knowing it to be nothing but a thought, we can simply let it go.

If we apply the more mindful approach then, in that very moment, we are free. But most people will say “yeah, sure, for that moment, but what about the next moment when the thought returns?” Well, there are several parts to that.

The first thing is to accept that this is about learning a new skill, a new way of doing things. Let’s say we are learning to play a new tune on the piano and we are having to change the 4th note in the song. If we had played that note in that sequence for years, then it would be really, really challenging. Sometimes we’d remember to change it, but to begin with we’d often forget because the habit is so strong. But every time we remember to be aware of it, we reinforce the new pattern. The same idea applies here. Sometimes we’ll catch ourselves early, sometimes it may take a while longer.

The next thing is the idea that once we’ve been mindful for a moment, that’s it. But because mindfulness is about each and every moment, we can never say “that’s it.” We deal with this moment right now. Once that has passed, we are with the next moment. So long as we are doing this, there is really no time to wish a thought hadn’t arisen in the past or to be fearful that one might in the future. So, as much as possible we try to go into each new moment without any expectations, hopes or fears.

But there is another interesting point here. It is tempting to think that if a similar thought keeps arising about the same issue, that it is the same thought. But that’s not strictly true. Each time it is a new thought, even if it feels, looks or sounds the same. And this is important, because it means we treat it in just the same way as any new thought. We see it, we acknowledge it, we let it go.

Most important of all, we have to remember that meditation is not about getting rid of thoughts, or changing thoughts or anything like that at all. It is about becoming more aware, having a better understanding of our mind. As we do that, we start to feel less isolated and more connected to those around us. Ultimate freedom is not about only experiencing positive thoughts which easily come and go. It is about being so at ease with the mind that no matter what thoughts arise and no matter how frequently they arise, they do not bother us or overwhelm us in any way whatsoever.