This morning, as I sat meditating, the teacher I was listening to suggested that if we found ourselves getting caught up in the stories in our head, we could label it “thinking” and let it go. Then she suggested that we could alternately say to ourselves, “This is a thought.”
Suddenly my mind opened up.
And, because I was supposed to be meditating, a whole host of thoughts came in instead.
I connected the words “this is a thought” to something that Jack Kornfield said once: “You cannot love in the past, for that is a memory; you cannot love in the future, for that is a fantasy. The only time you can love is in the present moment.”
So much of the time, when I am meditating, I notice that my mind is telling me stories: fantasy stories about what I might do in the future; what could go wrong, what I might do in response; or what could go right and how that would make me feel. Or memory stories about the past: what people said and did, what I said and did in response. Sometimes a blend: what people did and what I could have said.
It’s easy, when you are quiet, to notice these stories. They are really there all the time but we don’t pay attention to them because we are busy, working, or juggling the many things we have to take care of every day. Or distracting ourselves with television or reading. Or taking care of others.
It is only when we are quiet, when we are lying in bed at night or when we are sitting in meditation, that we become aware of the thoughts. Because we haven’t made time to listen to them during the day, they can keep us up at night. Or they can interrupt our meditation, taking us on journeys away from the present moment.
We don’t always label them as thoughts, as constructs of our mind. They feel real to us because we attach emotion to them, which fixes them in our minds. When he hears me telling a story, my husband will often challenge me that the story I am telling is not how something happened. Partly, I believe, because we experience things from different perspectives. Partly because, as any member of The Innocence Project will tell you, we can unintentionally remember things differently than they happened, especially if they hold strong emotion for us.
A memory feels important to us because it tells us something that we need to hear – that we are loved, that we need to take care, that once we were part of something truly beautiful – and those stories stick if they are associated with an emotion, the warm comfort of being loved, the cold fear of taking care, the awe of being part of something beautiful.
A memory of the future – a fantasy – feels important because it tells us something about how things could happen. Something could go wrong and we might have to be ready to react. Something could go right and then we would feel awesome. Or we have so many things we need to do, we need to organize them to prevent us from forgetting something. And, like our memories of the past, we attach emotion to these thoughts so that our mind remembers them. In fact, our mind remembers them as facts.
It’s easy to get caught up in this emotion, in these stories. It’s easy to forget that they are just constructs of our mind. Our mind has no ability to take action on its own: it has no hands to build with, no feet to move with, no arms to hug with, no voice to scream with. All it can do is spin stories and generate emotion in an effort to motivate us to take action, towards or away from a story in the past or in the future.
But these stories are just thoughts. They’re not real. All that is real is what we experience in the present moment.
If you are listening to someone, they may something that triggers a story: a memory of a time when someone said something similar and how that conversation made you feel; or you start to think about what you could say next; or what you could be doing instead of having this conversation. None of those stories are real. The only thing that is real is what this person is saying now, what their face or voice says, the chair beneath you, the laughter in the next room, the smells from the kitchen nearby, the taste of the toothpaste you brushed your teeth with this morning, the rectangle of light cast across the floor by the window behind you. Being present, you can hear what this person says to you, you can stop and reflect, and form a question, or smile in reassurance without being caught up in memory or fantasy. It sounds simple. And when you can be there, it feels wonderful.
All because you practice, for a few minutes every day, recognizing your thoughts for what they are and reminding yourself that each one is just a thought.
This is also just a thought.