Minding the Gap
We have just returned home from running a wonderful four day retreat in Snowdonia, during which we practised some potentially life-changing, mindfulness techniques. Whilst on retreat, I watched my thoughts more intensely than usual and once again I was struck by how incessantly I think.
Do you realise that when you wake up in the morning, you are already thinking, and that the last thing you do before you drift off to sleep at night is to have a thought? Now thinking is pretty useful in our world. Without thinking, we would find it pretty difficult to plan our daily life, earn good money, or plan a fabulous break from work.
But our incessant thinking also has a big downside. The more I really notice all of the thoughts that just pour through my mind all day long, the more I realise that virtually all of these thoughts are tinged with an underlying fear or anxiety.
We can all notice when we are thinking overtly fearful thoughts such as, ‘How will I survive if he leaves me?’ ‘What if this is cancer? ‘I think this plane is going to crash.’ But many other apparently innocuous thoughts are also based on an underlying, fearful ‘What about me?’ concern. For example, suppose you go out with your partner and have the best night out ever and then you think to yourself, ‘That was the best time we have ever spent together’ Underlying this apparently lovely thought lurks the fearful thought ‘What if we never have such a good time ever again?’
As well as noticing that most of our thoughts are fearful, we can also detect that virtually all of our thinking is actually all about ‘me’. We are all basically paranoid that something awful is about to happen to ‘me’ or ‘my’ loved ones, even though many of us manage to distract ourselves from this underlying dread and anxiety. We think so many fearful thoughts in an instinctive attempt to keep ourselves safe in a very unsafe world, but thinking fearfully about a possibly threatening future just winds us up for no good reason.
If there is a terrorist attack somewhere not too far away from where we live for example, we may notice that we start to think, ‘What if those evil terrorists attack my home town next? But this worrying thought does absolutely nothing to keep us safe from a potential terrorist attack. All it does is fill us with the dark, destructive energy of fear and hatred.
So what to do? We clearly cannot control our thoughts. If you observe your thoughts carefully for a while, you will notice that they just pop up in your mind uninvited. But one wonderful practise that we can all perfect is to learn to pause just for a moment or two between thinking.
How do you actually do this? You just sit quietly and mindfully watching yourself breathing in and out and gently noticing that as well as breathing, you are thinking. Then after a while, you deliberately pause between thoughts just for a second or two. Just as we can take a small break between our in breath and our out-breath, we can actually take small breaks from our incessant thinking. But please do not worry if you do not immediately master the practice of taking small gaps between thinking. In my experience, it does take some time and effort in calming our minds before we actually stop thinking even for a second or two!
I clearly remember many years ago meditating with Ken Mellor, an Australian meditation master, and just for a moment or two I stopped thinking for the very first time. After the group meditation ended, I excitedly told Ken what had happened to me and he smiled and said something like, ‘Yep, not thinking feels really good doesn’t it?’ Yes it does!!
One of the really blissful aspects of any long-term, serious meditation practice is that we eventually expand our awareness beyond thinking into a clear spaciousness that can be compared to a vast blue cloudless sky. Once our awareness expands into this non-thinking expansive state, all our self-centred worries and anxieties totally disappear for a while.
I do hope that you will soon experience this fabulous state of non-thinking consciousness for yourself, but if you find that whenever you meditate, your mind continues to generate one thought after another without any break whatsoever, please do not be the slightest bit disheartened. Simply noticing all thoughts arising and falling in your mind without totally losing yourself in them is a great first step to complete liberation from all fearful thinking!