Feeling Before Thinking – Always
As much as I have covered this subject in numerous posts, I keep hearing meditators complain about thinking: ‘I cant stop thinking,’ seems to be the main complaint and obstacle in meditation.
And its understandable. After all, in a culture such as ours in which we’re constantly encouraged to think from waking to sleep, in a lifetime of thinking about things – indeed, where our very survival depends on us thinking, calculating, anticipating, worrying, wanting, chatting and so on … it would be a bit ridiculous to expect our mind to suddenly stop thinking just because we’ve sat down to meditate.
Because our thinking habits have become insanely over developed – such that even when we don’t need to think, our mind is still mindlessly labelling, classifying, judging and reacting – all on its own. As I say in my book, ‘Happy to Burn’: ‘Our mind is like a hyperactive hand that never stops moving – even in rest it still twitches and moves on its own.’
So it’s quite a logical response in meditation, to try to use meditation to ‘stop the thinking’,
So let’s, once more, look at what thinking actually is, and where it comes from and how to deal with it.
Thinking is never the source of itself – it is always caused by something else – a sensation or feeling, an event, an inspiration or an emotion. Thinking always comes after these things – either as an identifier, or label. On their own these initial thoughts are benign and have no effect on the body – they’re simply the mind noticing things and labeling them then forgetting.
Which is why I say it’s okay for spontaneous thinking to arise in meditation. This kind of pure mental flow of thoughts arising then passing away has no influence on the body – it’s just a mind idling like a motor in neutral.
But if we react to these initial thoughts with more thinking, a body reaction is created. And that happens when the mental noticing of what has just occurred attracts other thoughts from the subconscious. That’s when we find ourselves actively involved in what’s just happened, judging it, remembering similar things, evaluating whether we like it or not. And the longer this goes on, the more momentum the thoughts get – and the more the body becomes affected by what we’re thinking.This is a reactive cycle – patterns of thinking creating feelings in the body (hormonal reactions), which create more thinking and so on.
Worrying is a classic example of this. And this process is largely automatic – a mind trying to find solutions to what it perceives as a sudden imbalance away from its preferred state of equilibrium.
Trouble is we spend so much of our life thinking, we think it’s the primary cause of everything. Which is why we try to stop it when it’s annoying us in meditation.We forget that thinking always comes second to something else.
The initial thought follows a physical event. It’s triggered by something that’s happened in our awareness, whether it is a sensation, an intuitive ‘knowing’, an instinctive reaction or a surprise event. And as I said, if we let the thinking rise up in the mind then pass away without bothering to react to it, it disappears like a dream. But if we react to that thought a reactive cycle begins, where our body gets excited in one way or another, which provokes more thinking.
And right there, it’s the feeling in our body that becomes the cause of the thinking. Not the initial event that made the first thought, but our reaction to what we’re thinking about – and the emotion that comes with it, however subtle, of irritation, frustration, anger, sadness or whatever.
If there was no reaction, feeling or emotion, there would be no thinking.
As such, particularly in meditation, if thinking is a problem, we should go to what is now causing the thinking – the feelings or emotions, not the thoughts themselves.
We go to the feeling-reaction, as sensations. Focus our attention there, and the thoughts will slowly fade away.
For example, let’s look at fear.
Let’s say we have to sit for an exam tomorrow, and we’re absolutely petrified of what’s going to happen.
On noticing that first thought ‘I’m petrified of this exam tomorrow,’ our attention becomes fixated and more thinking arises from the unconscious, and a reactive cycle begins. And the longer our attention remains fixed on that general theme, the more the compatible thoughts will be dredged up from the unconscious – associated experiences from the past: ‘that exam I failed in high school’, ‘the test I failed in primary school, failure, failure. failure … and so on’
Our body is now humming with a cocktail of hormones, of which adrenalin is the main component, which energises the worrying mind. With our mind now a swirling storm of thoughts along the theme of ‘failure’ we are creating a fictitious ‘tomorrow’ in our head and reacting to it continuously – all of which is energising the body reactions … which energises the mental reactions and so on.
This is a reactive cycle.
And because we mistakenly think everything begins and ends with what we think about it, we keep hopelessly battling the mind, trying to stop the thoughts. But as long as the body keeps reacting, our mind will obediently keep delving into the unconscious and free associating, trying to find a solution. And it will keep on doing this, for as long as our attention remains engaged with the thinking.
So trying to stop thinking in meditation, or any other time, is like trying to stop a fire by waving at the smoke – a total waste of time and energy. The only way to stop a fire is to ignore the smoke – go to the fire and pour water on it.
Divert your attention away from what you think, to what you feel.
Work with the bare sensations in your body – relax the tensions that have been created. Feel the anxiety as physical tightness and work with it. Pour all your attention into untangling this tightness and thr thoughts will lose power and fade all on their own
Working with how we feel does two things:
1. It gives your attention something practical to do, and diverts it away from the thinking.
2. It unwinds and soothes the physical reactions that are energising the thinking.
Because you are NOT paying attention to the thoughts, they lose momentum and coherence – which lessens their ability to cause body reactions.
With less body reactions, less hormones are released – so the feelings slowly subside.As the feeling of fear subsides, the mind naturally calms down and begins thinking other thoughts
So there it is – whenever you have a problem with thinking, the trick is to look past it at whatever physical effects accompany it. Look into the body and find out to where the thoughts are being provoked and pay attention to that.
Use the meditation method of Mental Noting to note the sensations as you work with them – it helps to keep the mind focused.
And be prepared to find emotions you didn’t expect, provoking the thoughts. For example, sometimes thoughts of boredom or frustration are actually coming from anger or sadness. So go with whatever emotion or set of tensions are there in the body, and keep tracking them with the mental notes as they change.
And be patient. Depending on how intense the body reaction is, it can take time for the organs to metabolise the hormones that are in play.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)