Thoughts and Attention

Thoughts and Attention

by meditator-MUDS2U » Fri Jan 09, 2015 7:19 pm

Hi Andy,

The questions in my mind arises when ( and I really do catch them when they do :) as I am still fairly new at this, not in regards to my meditation practice but on ways I can integrate mindfulness techniques with the more classical therapy based intervention techniques (which I have internalized and used for years).

As an example, with clients who struggle with anxiety, the cognitive techniques are commonly used, which involve cognitive exercises where clients practice noticing when anxious thoughts arise and questioning the validity of them. This means they have to, as they notice they are thinking, pause and observe the nature of the thought, decide what to do with it ( let go if harmless, or work further), and if they are the anxious quality, challenge them ( which implies in a way judging and resisting them as it is believed they provide faulty or disproportionate information).

Now this is done based on the knowledge that if these thoughts are not challenged and accepted as the truth, or the objective reality, this starts an anxiety response in the brain whereas challenging them starts an inhibitory response. The challenging and questioning is done to activate the inhibitory cortical parts of the brain as it is assumed that automatic (or fast) anxious thoughts and emotions originate in the more emotional parts of the brain (amygdala).

Now as you can see there is a lot of rejecting and resisting involved in this. And what is also implied in this is that clients are supposed to stop and spend a bit of time working with these thoughts, questioning the nature of them and challenging them ( as opposed to notice as they arise and let them pass).

My difficulty with my own meditation has been that although I am able to realize that I am thinking and call it ‘just a thought’ and let it go without looking much into it, I feel a sense of hesitation or uneasiness as I simply let thoughts come and go... And some do stick, when that happens instead of working with them, I practice noticing that and still letting them pass by (like a car in the traffic, without stopping it or chasing after it), redirecting my attention on another target (breath)…. Now simply letting go of these thoughts, without looking into them a little deeper sometimes feels like ignoring the messages or the content of them to me. Here I wonder if this is the way it is supposed to be only during the meditation practice or in general in my daily mindful life as well…..?

On the same note, as I observe the uneasiness I feel when letting my thoughts just be as they are…even the potentially ‘harmful ones’, I believe this is where the feeling of uncertainty kicks in.. that I might be letting potential harmful thoughts just pass by without working with them in any way… even though they pass, do they leave a mark… ?

I know that this non-indulgence in mindfulness is advised and beneficial, I still wonder if there is any place of healthy amount of observing the nature of the thoughts in mindfulness.

On a more positive note, I am very aware of the great sense of freedom and ease inherent in this approach, not having to question or change any of our thoughts and even emotions. It is something that I hope will gently start to settle in my practice; just stepping back and observing thoughts as they come and go….and there is great sense of acceptance in that.

I guess I am getting a little carried away, so I apologize in advance for this lengthy reflection. But I guess my main question here is that do we ever stop and think about our thoughts in a greater length, either during meditation practice or in general when applying mindfulness in our daily lives? Although we realize the presence of our thoughts as they arise, instead of letting go, is there a place where we are encouraged to look a little deeper..? or are we to indiscriminately accept thoughts as they arise and simply let them go?

What is your advice in regards to persistent thoughts and emotions that demand out attention more? When they keep coming back?

I know I am still at the beginning of this exciting journey and am pretty confident things will start to unravel as I progress along, still I am curious enough to seek some clarification.

I appreciate all the enlightenment.

Warm Wishes,


Andy's Answer:

Hi Gozde,

Many thanks for your question. I'm not sure I'll be able to answer it in quite as much detail as you go into, but happy to take a look at a couple of the broader themes here. Incidentally, thanks for the kind words about Headspace and I'm delighted it's proving so useful in your life.

The first thing that stands out to me is that you are just at the end of Take10. Well done on completing those first 10 days by the way. But it's important to say that this really is just the beginning. Many of the questions you ask will be answered as you continue to practice. More importantly, they will be answered through your own exploration and discovery, which is always far more valuable than reading what someone else has to say about the subject.

Whilst I very much respect the cognitive type of approaches you describe, and would always encourage people to use them if they find them helpful, from a personal point of view, I find mindfulness offers a different type of potential.

The mind is the mind. Thoughts are thoughts. In the moment they arise we cannot say they are good or bad, they are simply as they are. Only in retrospect, having engaged that very same thinking mind, can we judge those thoughts and reach the conclusion that they are unhealthy or unhelpful.

When we take hold of a thought with the intention of doing something with it, whether it is analysing, judging or whatever, we are attaching ourselves to that thought. But in the light of awareness, when we see a thought clearly and let is arise and fall away again, in it's own natural state and rhythm, then we are letting go.

My own experience has been the less we encourage attachment and the more we encourage letting go, the more happiness we uncover.

As for whether thoughts leave a mark, I would suggest that the mark is not left by the thought itself but by our reaction to it. Again, a thought is just a thought. It is not something tangible or permanent, everlasting somehow. What lasts is our attachment to that thought. It may be fear, worry, sadness or anger in relation to it, but as soon as we let that go, nothing remains. As a concept this is interesting, but as an experience, it is life changing.

But it is important this awareness comes from your own practice. It doesn't really matter what I have to say, as this is all just more stuff to think about, to get attached to or reject:) So I would encourage you to continue on your journey, to practice with a beginner's mind, with a sense of gentle curiosity, free from any previous notions or ideas. Simply sitting, watching, observing. In time you will become more confident in this process an find it easier to let go.

You may also be interested to know that in some of the later packs, there is actually a technique for delving deeper into particular topics. It is a reflective technique which dis-engages cognition and yet nonetheless asks the important questions. I think you'll find it very interesting. I hope that's helpful in some small way and very best wishes from HSHQ!

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