This is a phrase you often come across in meditation teachings, that one should “just observe and let thoughts come and go”. But my experience is that when thoughts have come, they automatically lead to more thoughts as soon as you have examined them. It’s not as if a thought is a single unit, which arrives and finishes. Its like it starts confabulating, leading on to an infinity of thoughts.
Does that mean that one should start checking when a thought finishes, and detach from the thought then? Or is it that one should take care not to let trains of thought develop by not allowing follow-up thoughts? Or jumps from one thought onto the next?
This will not be new information but is something I use to check myself occasionally when my own mentally starts dominating a sitting.
One of the analogies of letting thoughts come and go that I've liked, came from the abbess of a Zen Monastery that was in close proximity to the main freeway.
She likened thoughts (in formal meditation) to that freeway traffic.
That a meditator was like someone sitting under a busy bridge that was active with that traffic and was simply practicing the art of allowing it all to arrive and pass overhead without trying to attach, detach or ignore any of it.
Learning how to be that witness that can observe all the coming and going of that traffic without becoming a hitchhiker or a traffic cop in response to it.
Here, a differentiation between the observer and the observed can become established enough to stop empowering our habituated identity reactions to the traffic.
Here, it is possible to awaken to and fully reside within this present moment, completely aware of our arising, living and departing thoughts, and yet no longer be identity bound by that traffic.
It was not a bad teaching on a hilly section of highway, where heavy trucks could randomly and noisily apply their jake brakes in their long descent past us despite being in a monastically pastoral pine setting.
It's a practice of letting go. You let go of the thoughts. You notice that they start generating more thoughts, make a mental note of it, then release the little tangle of thoughts, and come back to no-thoughts.
That won't be difficult if you're using the right breathe technique: very slow, deep breaths that push down into your belly (engage your diaphragm for this), then they very slowly rise back up, and out through your mouth (or nose). You watch the breath float away in your mind's eye. This helps clear and calm the mind.
Over time, it will get easier to sustain a state of no-thoughts. The length of the no-thoughts period of time will get longer. This is "calm abiding". It's like a vacation for the mind. The busy "monkey mind" gets to rest.
I’ve noticed that noting thoughts, by saying “that is a thought”, is helpful in that it interrupts things and returns the thinking to a meditative train of thought.
Viewing it as letting go is helpful, thanks @Dakini.
Generally you're taught to anchor the mind to the breath. So you count and pay attention to the breathe and what you notice that you get distracted by thoughts. often we are absorbed into a thought story day dream and then we snap out of it, like waking from a dream. that is a the gross form of thoughts. but there are also very subtle undercurrents of thoughts and stories that are fragments, which are very difficult to see unless we have a very refined attention. one can also attend to proto-thought patterns which deal with sensation, which is not really a thought as image, but as felt sensation. it still carries the same object fixation of there being "something" there.
in mindfulness you come to a point where attention moves out but simultaneously you are aware as the watcher of those thoughts and perceptions. it feels very much like a fullness or a sensation of centeredness, in which thoughts arise, abide and cease. what remains is the mind/watcher/cognitive quality. this is still dualistic in nature, but is indispensable training of the mind.
if you're looking for non dualistic teachings on mindfulness then you have to seek a teacher, who can point out to your mind how to discern the liberating principle apart from thoughts, sensations and perceptions. then thinking won't be much of a problem because there will be no more link between a subject and object, hence no continuity of karmic impressions.
Thoughts, same as the twigs and leaves of a forest are not me and not mine.
If while sitting under a tree in a forest, something were to cause it to shake and it dropped small twigs and leaves landing on your clothes and in your hair, the inclination would be to shake them off. To clean yourself off.
Same thing with thoughts and feelings trying to stick in the mind and body. Shake them off and brush them off. Let them fall away. They are not mine, they are not me. Doesn't mean they aren't there, just not my concern. Back to sitting.
What I find interesting is that when other people describe their minds, it doesn’t look at all like my mind. I have very little to no internal monologue, most of the time, but in meditation I still notice sometimes I am carried away by a flow of thoughts which fill me and evolve, one concept following after the next. When I remind myself, that is a thought, then there is a period of quiet that follows.
When I consider being the witness, that which observes the thoughts coming and going, its like I imagine taking a step back. But when the thoughts come, they fill the space in between and I find I cannot maintain a distance from which to observe them. The thoughts come and fill me, and the concept of “space” within which I look for them seems an illusion.
To think of thoughts in space seems a function of the imagination. To be really clear requires one to not get caught up in imagery conjured by modes of speech or the imagination.
This mornings haphazard musings.
Forms, sensations, thought, volitional activity and consciousness are simply
the Buddhist descriptions of the components of our existence. Most identities seem constructed by our chosen preferences of some of these components over others, of this collection. Deconstruction of an ego or a break up of the patterns that predetermine how we habitually respond to any phenomena is simply us learning how to stop favoring some of these components over others.
This is what I think meditation...is.
Less about the descriptions of which of these components are our favorites, and more about an actualization that lessens such preferences.