In a post of mine published on PsychCentral, “Handling Intrusive Thoughts While Meditating,” I wrote about how to label and let thoughts go during meditation. But currently, I’m in the midst of a crisis in my family and some pretty significant thoughts about it come up during meditation. I don’t want to let these thoughts go. They may help me figure things out, resolve things, and make things better. If I let them go I may just lose them without any benefit of having had them. This also happens when very creative ideas pop-up while meditating. Why just let a good idea go and return to the breath?
During meditation it is revealed that we are not our thoughts. They are mental constructs and often tell us very little about who we are. All too often they are the stuff of victimhood, confusion, and judgment. At other times they are full of fear and worry, or planning and fantasy. Always they pull us away from the present moment, and often they add nothing to the quality of our life, our compassion, or our happiness. And yet we still think, constantly. We are thinking beings, and human thought has borne so much fruit.
I don’t think anyone teaching meditation is a proponent of not thinking. We’re just making the point that your thoughts drag you away from your present experience, and that they are often erroneous. But what happens when they’re dead on, profound, and worthy of contemplation. Why would anyone want to let these things go and return to the breath instead of carrying out an important idea? Because that’s what we do during mindfulness meditation, and that is what separates mindfulness from contemplation. But I don’t think for a minute you should lose these important, productive thoughts. You should just set them down for a moment and come back to them later, with even more clarity and focus.
So there is a difference in the quality of our thoughts, and there is a difference in how we should handle them. Thinking about what to buy at the supermarket, what I could have said at the party last night to make me seem more charming, or what a terrible meditator I am can just be let go of. Thoughts that are random and insignificant need not be dealt with again, and can pass from our attention. So too can all reverie, and most anger and judgment. Thoughts that defeat us and add nothing to our lives can pass away and our attention can return to the breath, to the present moment.
On the other hand, thoughts we don’t want to lose can be set down, in order to come back to them later. But later is key. You are meditating now, staying with the breath in the present. So just put the thought down and, for the period of meditation, be done with it. If it keeps nagging you or you’re afraid you’ll lose it, stop, write it down, and return to the breath. It will still be there when you get back to it, and your insights may be even more relevant and profound.
Other thoughts also lend themselves to being set down and not merely let go. Intense grief or suffering and deserved guilt cannot be merely tossed aside. But these thoughts, too, should be set down for a time and the attention placed back on the breath, remaining in the present, where these things are only thoughts and all is just as it is. There will be plenty of time to wrestle with change or reconciliation, and the clarity of mind that meditation offers will help.