If you wish to practice, find a downloadable guided meditation and YouTube video at the bottom!
I’ll begin this piece by just saying it clearly: you can be mindful and present AND have an active mind full of thoughts. Being mindful or present does NOT mean the mind has to be clear and empty. You can be 100% present with a thinking mind in the exact same way that you can be present with nature, a loved one, or the breath. This is a topic we have written about before in multiple posts, like our Seven Misconceptions about Meditation, Misunderstandings and the Harm Caused, How Can I Block Negative Thoughts?, and Ten Meditation Tips for Beginners to name a few. We write about it so frequently because it is one of the most harmful beliefs about meditation practice that we see in our work online and in-person with students and groups.
This perspective on mindfulness and presence comes from a Buddhist foundation. We understand many spiritual and secular traditions use the word “mindfulness” to mean different things, and this may not be what another tradition teaches. However, we do study Buddhism here at One Mind Dharma, and thought we’d offer some clarity on this issue from a Buddhist perspective. If you come from another tradition and want to share your thoughts on our blog, you can email us at Info@OneMindDharma.com as we’d love to share it! You can also read our post Understanding the Different Types of Buddhism to learn more about different schools.
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We hear it quite a bit. People come to our groups and say they have a tough time meditating because they have a really active mind. Or perhaps someone shares that they find themselves thinking and not being present. These are legitimate experiences. Sometimes the mind runs and we get swept up out of the present moment as we buy into thoughts. This is called papañca (pronounced PA-PAHN-CHA). Papañca is a Pali word that can perhaps most accurately be translated as “proliferation.” We’ve all experienced it, and probably experience it daily. Papañca is the way the mind hooks onto something and gets dragged off into it. Often, it’s a repetitive cycle or loop triggered by a a sound, sight, thought, smell, taste, or feeling. For example, we have a thought about work we need to get done and find ourselves in a journey of the mind in which we have many thoughts arise about all of the things we need to do. The nature of papañca is that it often pulls us from mindfulness. When we think of a thinking mind, we’re often thinking of papañca. The “Mind Full or Mindful?” image points toward this.
The misunderstanding many people have is that we cannot have an active mind AND be mindful. The truth is that not all thinking is papañca. If I ask you right now to think of an elephant, can you be mindful of that thought? Can you notice its presence, the visual that may come along with it, and anything else that arises? We are able to think and be mindful of the thoughts we’re having. The misunderstanding that mindfulness means a silent and quiet mind is actually harmful. We have people every week come to our groups and identify as bad meditators because the mind likes to think. It’s a pervasive perception in our society, and it’s a hard thinking pattern to break. The truth is that you can have an active mind that is constantly thinking and practice true mindfulness. In fact, if we ignore or deny the thinking mind, we aren’t really practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness of the Mind
Mindfulness is not dependent upon the object of our awareness. Reflect on this point, as it’s important to understand. If you’re mindful of your breath, is it not the same quality as if you’re mindful of a bird chirping? You bring your awareness and recognition to the experience and notice it as it is occurring. Even though the experiences may be very different at these different sense-doors, the quality 0f mindfulness is exactly the same. So why do we believe thinking is any different? You’re not alone. I find myself doing this too. Because we so often get lost in the thinking mind, we just label it as “not-mindful.” And even if we do recognize that we can be mindful of our thoughts, we often don’t value this as true mindfulness.
Mindfulness of Thoughts
In the Satipatthana Sutta, which is the Buddha’s discourse on establishing mindfulness, the Buddha discusses bringing mindfulness to the state of mind. I highly recommend Anālayo’s book, Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization. Anālayo is a Buddhist monk who completed his PhD thesis on the Satipatthana Sutta. This book is a version of his thesis edited for book format, and dives deeply into what mindfulness really is. It’s on our list of Best Buddhist Books, and is one of our absolute favorites. It’s an important practice we must investigate, as the mind is one of the six sense-doors. As we begin to tune into the thinking mind, we begin to deeply know the Three Marks of Existence. We can see the habits of mind more clearly and not get so wrapped up in the thoughts that arise. As we cultivate the ability to be mindful of the thinking mind, we no longer fall into papañca as easily. When we do notice the mind wandering, sometimes called monkey mind, we’re able to bring mindfulness to the thinking patterns with more ease.
Many people, myself included, begin a meditation practice assuming that the thinking mind is a “bad” thing. Even if we understand we can bring mindfulness to it, we still hold some deep reservations or judgements about the practice. It really is an important practice we must investigate. What brings you suffering? Is it experience, or your reactions and responses to experience? The suffering that we experience is caused by our habits of mind. If we wish to lessen our suffering, we MUST investigate mindfulness of thoughts and mental states. The liberation that comes from meditation isn’t just a calmer and quieter mind; it’s also the ability to not get sucked into papañca, clinging, and aversion so easily.
As mentioned before, part of the problem is that we don’t truly value mindfulness. We often value concentration, or samadhi, when we think we are talking about mindfulness, or sati. Concentration is focusing and settling on one object, such as the breath. In concentration practices, we let go of thoughts and other sensations at other sense-doors. With mindfulness, we rest in a more open awareness, noticing what is arising and recognizing it. Mindfulness and concentration interact, but it’s important to know the difference between the two.
In mindfulness practice, we notice what arises in our experience, not closing out anything. The British monk Ajahn Sumedho often says, “Everything belongs.” We should include any experience in our mindfulness practice. And as we grow to learn what mindfulness is, we must value it whether the object of our awareness is the breath or the thinking mind. When we practice like this, we begin to see that we can have a full mind AND be mindful. We can have unpleasant thoughts, angry thoughts, or thoughts of regret and be mindful. Nothing should be excluded from our awareness.
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