It’s easy to say that when meditating one should focus on the breath and release thoughts as they arise, but it’s incredibly difficult to do. I’ve been a bit hypomanic lately, and ideas are flying through my head. Concentration and attention are very difficult. Acknowledging thoughts and letting them go is hard enough on a good day. What do I do now?
During mindfulness meditation you keep your attention on your breath, but you want to be fully aware in this moment. So you still take note of sounds and smells, aches and pains, all that makes up the present moment. When thoughts arise the instructions are to notice them, let them go, and return to the breath. But to just blot out thoughts without paying attention to them would not be very mindful at all. Don’t ignore your thoughts, work with them.
As a thought pops up, acknowledge it, let it go, and return to the breath. Don’t carry it out to a conclusion. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t try to add reason at this time. Notice that you’re thinking, that your mind has pulled you away from your awareness of this moment, and place your attention back on the breath. Labeling thoughts may help you release them. If you’re sitting stewing about something you should have done differently this morning, label it judging and let it go. If you’re thinking about what to make for lunch or what to do this weekend, label that planning and return to the breath. If you’re taken by thoughts of beaches and the sun, label them fantasy and bring your attention back to the present moment. The point is never to not think, the point is to remain aware of what is going on in and around you right now. Too many scattered thoughts can drag you away from the moment and cheat you of your present experience. Acknowledging thoughts, labeling them, and coming back to the present can help you stay centered and focused.
This practiced training of releasing thoughts is very challenging right now in my present state. But practice has made me aware that the flight of ideas that comes with hypomania is taking hold. Before becoming a meditator these thoughts would have tumbled out of control and my attention, mood, and behavior would have suffered. But being aware of what is happening in and around me, and having some practice on how to let thoughts go, is helping me to keep things under control. I’m still agitated, my mind is still keeping me up at night, but I’m as aware that what is taking me now are just thoughts as I am aware that my breath is always available - available to draw my attention and return me to my present experience, even if it’s an uncomfortable one.
So part of what meditation can be is practice for a crisis. Practice at letting go of random and confusing thoughts. If you can learn to keep your attention on your breath and in the present on a good day, then you can use this technique to remain grounded when things get difficult. The mind can hold great escapes, but we must always return to the present. Staying in the present as often as possible helps us avoid the wreckage that can occur when our minds take us too far from what is really happening.