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MIDL 16/52: Observing Attention Move 2

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In MIDL Mindfulness Training 16/52 you continue to refine your skill in observing habitual shifts of your attention away from the elemental quality of your body in order to develop understanding of the nature of attention. Through placing effort towards noticing when attention shifts towards thoughts arising within the mind you continue to develop your sense of investigation, continuity of mindfulness and momentary concentration. As these mental factors mature you will also start to experience the ability to observe thinking patterns as they arise within the mind in daily life. Submit Your Question

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Why "Stop Thinking"?

Your Question: For me, this meditation exercise with a bit conflictual. Knowing that the mind cannot hold a negative thought, when I hear the phrase "stop thinking; don’t think" my mind recognizes that the focus is now on thinking. I am uncertain of what the motivation is behind offering such guidance.

Stephen Procter: This technique is used to create the intention to not think in order to create a gap in the thought stream that allows the meditator to observe the arising of thinking within the mind. Even if the gap created is small and thinking arises straight away as in this case, this does not mean that the technique did not work. On the contrary it allowed you to see what the Buddha called ‘Anatta’, the not-self characteristic of thinking itself; thinking is not under your control.

What is really interesting here is that when you hear the phrase “stop thinking”, your mind then starts thinking. This is wonderful; it is allowing you to see the impersonal and habitual nature of your thought process. This mindfulness training is designed to clarify the habitual nature of thinking; that we are not in control of it and that whether it arises or not is really none of our concern.

Mindfulness techniques such as this clarify this impersonal nature and gradually change our relationship towards the thought process. The weakening of identification with habitual thinking patterns is the abandoning of a heavy burden and the beginning of the deconditioning of habitual patterns within the mind.


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Feeling Confused

Your Question: Is there a difference between being aware of my hands and thinking about my hands? I don't think I know how to be aware of them without thinking about them. Similarly, once I'm aware of a thought, since I know I'm not supposed to think, that thought stops and is replaced with "I'm thinking" or "don't think". So the beginning and end of the thought collapse into each other. The whole thing leaves me feeling like I'm struggling and confused about what I'm supposed to be doing. It would be so much easier to simply watch my breathing, which is how I have meditated before.

Stephen Procter: You said: "It would be so much easier to simply watch my breathing, which is how I have meditated before."

Reply: Yes it is true that it would be much easier to simply watch your breathing, but what understanding would you develop from just watching your breath come in and out? You may develop enough concentration to suppress your thinking and feel peaceful while sitting in meditation, but you will not develop any understanding about the habitual patterns within your mind. To develop understanding of habitual patterns within your mind you need to structure your attention in a very specific way. This means not using your meditation object, such as breathing, to anchor your attention in one place but rather allowing your mind to wander and using your meditation object as a reference point from which to observe when your attention moves.

You said: "Is there a difference between being aware of my hands and thinking about my hands?"

Reply: Yes there is a difference, thinking about your hands is concerned with the shape and form of your body creating an imaginary border around them that gives rise to the feeling of separateness. When being purely aware of your hands touching the actual experience is made up of sensations such as warm or cool, soft or hard, wet or dry, etc. When just being aware of the touch of the hands there is no thought: "My hands are touching", but just awareness of the sensations of touch.

You said: "Similarly, once I'm aware of a thought, since I know I'm not supposed to think, that thought stops and is replaced with "I'm thinking" or "don't think". So the beginning and end of the thought collapse into each other."

Reply: It is not that you are not meant to think during this mindfulness training but rather that you are developing the ability to observe thinking itself. You have noticed some wonderful things during this meditation that teach you about the habitual processes of your mind. First you have clearly observed that you have no control over your thoughts; they come and go regardless of whether you want them to. You also clearly observed how your mind replaces one thought with another and likes to comment such as: "That thought stops and is replaced with "I'm thinking" or "don't think". This commenting is habit talking to you.

You said: "So the beginning and end of the thought collapse into each other. The whole thing leaves me feeling like I'm struggling and confused about what I'm supposed to be doing. "

Reply: This is the doorway to deep insight into the nature of reality, you are observing the impermanent and uncontrollable nature of thinking. The feeling of struggle and confusion is your habitual defence against anything that changes and is out of your control within your life. This is what mindfulness meditation is about, uncovering and observing these habitual defence patterns. When any struggle or confusion arise, make them your meditation object. Notice where you experience them within your body and use your MIDL Softening skill to soften / relax your relationship towards them. This creates the path.

There was a lot going on here, it was just missing the context of what you were doing during meditation. What we are observing is ordinary, very ordinary and that is what makes it so special. MIDL Mindfulness Training is designed to allow us to see this.


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Struggle With This Concept

Your Question: I continue to struggle with the concept not thinking, recognizing when thinking begins or ends.

Stephen Procter: Do not concern yourself if you cannot at this time observe the beginning and ending of thinking. What you can observe every time you become lost within thinking is the habitual patterns of your mind. Observe the uncontrollable nature of thinking and the collapse of your mindfulness when you become lost within it, this is where the insight is to be found.

The ability to observe the arising of thinking will happen naturally when your mindfulness is strong enough and mental factors are in balance, it is not something that you can just do. If the factors are not in balance it does not matter how much effort you put in, it still won't happen. Your striving to observe thinking actually feeds it through creating energy, relax the striving.

Whenever struggle arises within your mind observe the experience of the struggle itself. What does it feel like to struggle, to strive, to try? Use your MIDL Softening skill to soften / relax deeply into the desire to achieve.

Learn how to soften deeply, very deeply. The very act of striving to see creates agitation which collapses tranquillity; the stillness of mind. I know this because this was my weakness from which my teacher had to guide me. Your task during these mindfulness trainings is to put in just enough effort to observe what you are experiencing now and your relationship towards it. Instead of putting emphasis on catching the beginning of each thought and not thinking, start by observing what this process is trying to teach you in terms of its uncontrollable and habitual nature.

For example:
You are following your meditation object and suddenly you notice that you are lost within thinking - don't you find that strange?

Why did your awareness of your main meditation object collapse and also your awareness that you were meditating?

These are the points to take interest in. Also start to observe the impermanence of awareness and also how you have absolutely no control over the thinking process. It is not that you are thinking your thoughts but that your thoughts are thinking you - observe this. When you come out of a thought observe the quality of your awareness now that you are out of it, the clarity. Also reflect on the clarity of your awareness when you were lost within the thought. Investigating these is where you will get the juice.


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Is This Thinking?

Your Question: I was noticing like if my mind was starting to "move" to create a thought and in that moment something was sort of whispering to me "look! It's starting to create a thought!" And just after that my mind was wondering "isn't this a thought itself? so I just wonder now, when is it actually a thought or just the moment of awareness of what's going on?

Stephen Procter: Awareness of a thought, such as its beginning or ending, arises as a knowing. The verbalization about what is already known is a thought. Thoughts can arise as a sight, sound, smell, taste or sensation; one of the five senses and contains all the information needed within it. For example, you can look at a flower and know that it is a flower. You can also know if the flower is partly or fully open, tall or short. You can also know its colour and its type if you have seen it before. Knowing within itself contains no commentary - no thinking.

When you look at the flower and know it, then your mind may say, "Isn’t the flower beautiful" "I really like this flower, I wonder where I can buy one?" "I am going to pick this flower so I can bring it home and continue to enjoy it" "It is beautiful but it’s not as beautiful as the flowers in my garden". This overlayed commentary is thinking.

This is one of the minds tasks, to verbalise the experience of the world as it enters through the five senses and give it relevance in terms of "me". The verbalising you experienced is your mind overlaying a commentary to try to make sense of what you are experiencing in meditation - to make it relevant to you. In your practice learn to separate the "knowing" from the "commentary".


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Allowing Thoughts to Drift

Your Question: I do prefer someone to not tell me to not think , as even if my mind is clear at that moment I automatically create a thought, or it draws my attention to my thoughts that I would otherwise allow to drift on by.

Stephen Procter: This MIDL Mindfulness Training is designed to observe the habitual nature of the thought process and how awareness moves towards and absorbs within thoughts producing thinking. This understanding cannot be developed by allowing thoughts to 'drift on by'. It is important to be very clear about why we are practicing mindfulness meditation, is it to experience a clear mind in seated meditation or to cultivate wisdom in order to develop equanimity towards our life?

If it is to cultivate wisdom then we need to create the conditions to do this by structuring our attention in a very specific way. The intention to not think is not used to stop thoughts from arising but to create a gap in the thought stream so that it is possible to observe thoughts as they arise. Your thoughts arising within your clear mind when asked not to think are trying to teach you about their habitual and impersonal nature. It is these two aspects that need to be observed in order to cultivate wisdom. This skill of being able to observe the focus of awareness moving and the impermanent & impersonal nature of the thought process is a necessary part of MIDL practice to cultivate wisdom.


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Trying to Not think

Your Question: How do you not think about anything? This was difficult for me and I didn't feel very relaxed at the end. Probably because I was working so hard not to think.

Stephen Procter: During this MIDL Mindfulness Training it is not so much that we try to stop thinking but more that we create the intention to not think, then relax that intention and wait to see what happens.

What you can take away from this MIDL Mindfulness Training is how little control you actually have over your thought process. No matter how much you tried the thinking continued, this is interesting since we generally believe that we are producing and thinking all our thoughts. From this you can observe the power of habitual patterns within your mind. The irony is that when we stop trying to not to think and allow the habitual thought process to run, relinquishing our participation in it, all habitual thinking naturally comes to an end.


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Catch Thinking Begin

Your Question: As this series progresses and I practise each session for a week or more. I am still finding it almost impossible to "catch" when thinking begins. I will recognize it once it is in progress but am usually into the thoughts before I realize they have started. I have ADHD and am struggling with whether this is due entirely to the disorder or if it can normally be a real challenge and something that can simply improve with the practice.

Stephen Procter: The important part when doing this MIDL training is not catching the beginning of the thought process but rather placing effort into noticing every time your attention moves. It is this noticing that cultivates mindfulness, whether you notice the arising of a thought or you notice it after you have been lost in it for 20 minutes is irrelevant - it is the noticing itself that is being cultivated.

Use the Softening skills trained in MIDL Mindfulness Trainings 3 -5/52 to relax / soften any struggle you experience. The thinking itself is not the problem; your struggling is. Your striving for something to be other then how it is. This is based on mental aversion; resistance. Also take interest in the movements of your attention towards thoughts, allow the thinking to teach you.

Here you are fully aware of your meditation object and then the next thing you know you have been lost in a thought - don't you find that strange? You were fully aware, you disappeared, then you were aware again - this is interesting. Observe this combined with investigating what it means to soften and your meditation practice will deepen.


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