THE ART OF MINDFULNESS
Thoughts are OK
with Dr Graham Williams
It’s true that we all get caught up in our thoughts from time to time to the point where we get stressed. It’s also true that our lives tend to be run by the undercurrent of emotions which they generate. And yes, they can drive us completely crazy. But thinking is what we human beings do. It’s what made us the dominant species on this planet.
Through thinking we are able to plan, assess, collect facts and discover and examine patterns. And it’s through thinking that we’ve built languages. Without thoughts I wouldn’t be able to be talking to you now. So I think that thoughts are OK.
Why then, do they tend to have such a bad press in the meditation world and why do so many meditation teachers and practitioners believe that they should never think when they’re meditating? Perhaps it comes from discovering how wonderful it feels when you have a taste of being balanced and still, completely free from the incessant conversation going on in your head. It’s easy then to say that thoughts are bad and they create all our problems.
But thinking is a natural part of our minds. It’s not that we somehow artificially created a thinking monster in our minds. Thinking is an ability whose potential has always been there, but we, as a species, have particularly developed it.
The three levels of the brain
There are three distinct levels in our brains; the brain stem which could be called the Reptilian or Instinctual Brain because it predates human evolution and is the seat of our instincts, the Mammalian Brain which is about 50 million years old and is the seat of our emotions, and the Thinking Brain or the neo-cortex which is by far the youngest.
Our bodies aren’t specialised for any particular skill. Every other animal on this planet has at least one sense which is far more highly developed than ours. It’s the extraordinary development of our brain, and especially our Thinking Brain, that makes us human.
Therefore, trying to get rid of our thoughts is like cutting off our arms and legs; they are an integral part of our minds. And if you have ever been told, or have read, that when you are meditating you shouldn’t be thinking, then you have been done a serious disservice. You actually tie yourself into a complete knot of you try not to think because thinking that you should not be thinking is still thinking!
The skill of meditating
The wonderful thing about meditating is that it gives you the tools to develop the skill of being able to be in touch with all three levels of your brain. It begins by moving your focus from your thoughts to your senses or, in other words, from your thinking mind to your instinctual and emotional minds. Every meditation does this because, in various different ways, it focuses your mind on the immediate experience of your body and your senses.
However, the skill of meditating also incorporates whatever thoughts and emotions you have while you are meditating. The Four-Step Meditation Technique consists of relaxing your body, calming your mind by focusing on a meditation object, noticing whatever thoughts come along during the meditation, and finally, when you are ready, returning to focussing on the meditation object you have chosen. This is the anchor, or the hand-rail, which holds you steady so that you don’t get lost in your thoughts.
Keeping your mind and body together
The third step, noticing whatever thoughts you have while meditating, is where mindfulness begins. You need to be calm to do this, otherwise your thoughts would simply drive you to do something, just as they normally do. It is invariably a shock when people notice how much traffic is actually going through their minds!
The fact that you are able to notice your thoughts means that you are meditating – you have the calm, the balance and the space to be able to see them and not be caught in them. You can be mindful of them and so start to see where they come from, where they go, and the space around them.
This is the art of mindfulness, paying attention to your thoughts while keeping your balance. You can then also see how they affect your body. Discovering the emotions they generate in your body also enables you to see that every thought and emotion you experience has its own breathing pattern.
By taking notice of your thoughts in meditation you can have moments of insight when answers to questions you might be asking suddenly come to you. You can also find that it becomes easier to see what you are doing more clearly and make better decisions in your everyday life. The art of mindfulness can then be not just something you do when meditating, but also an integral part of your life.
Dr. Graham Williams has over thirty years’ experience teaching both meditation and mindfulness, is the Director of The Lifeflow Meditation Centre and an adjunct lecturer in the School of Medicine at Flinders University. He has written two books, Insight and Love which is in its third edition and Life in Balance. They are both available online. The Lifeflow Centre provides regular meditation courses in their city studio and retreats at their retreat centre in a beautiful, relaxing hills setting.
P 8379 9001