Takeaways: Gil Fronsdal's Intro to Mindfulness, Class 4, Thinking

I’m listening to Gil Fronsdal’s five Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation podcasts, which were recommended to me as good listening for novice meditators.  My prior posts were about Week 1, “Posture and Breath”Week 2, “The Body”Week 3, “Emotions”.  This post is about Week 4, “Thinking”.

"There’s a lot more to notice in your thinking than to notice the content of your thoughts."

As the title suggests, this lesson focuses on being aware of your thinking.  Fronsdal notes it’s common for people to believe the biggest hindrance to meditation is the thinking mind, but argues against this:

“In mindfulness meditation, there’s no need whatsoever to see your thinking mind, your thinking, as the problem [or] as something to have any kind of critical feeling towards.  [Instead, we prefer] to be mindful of what’s happening, to notice what’s happening in the present moment, to bring awareness to what’s happening.  So, if thinking is what’s happening, then the idea is to bring a certain kind of attention to your thinking, a heightened clarity, a heightened recognition: ‘I am thinking right now.’”

Fronsdal describes this as “a kind of stepping away”, and suggests trying it in daily life.  If you find yourself thinking obsessively about something:

“...say a few times to yourself, ‘I am thinking about this now’, or ‘these are thoughts about [for example] my clothes… about work...’.  That kind of stepping back and recognizing kind of frees us from the involvement.  It’s not the thinking that’s the problem in meditation but rather how we feed the thinking, how we’re involved, how we believe, how we fuel it and get involved in it.”

This is another variation on what may be Fronsdal’s key takeaway from all the lessons: keep it simple, don’t add on, let it be.  When you’re meditating, whatever happens, don’t fuel it, don’t judge it, don’t add to it, don’t react to it, just be with it.  Be simple with it.  As I mentioned in the last post, he repeats and elaborates on this a remarkable number of times.

Fronsdal suggests that once you get some practice in observing your thinking, “what happens is you can start seeing more clearly the territory, what’s going on as you think... There’s a lot more to notice in your thinking than to notice the content of your thoughts.”

That last line may be the one-sentence summary of the lesson.  Putting it in other words, Fronsdal says that, through meditation, we can try to lift “the veil of ideas”, to see what’s behind them, what’s fueling them.

I find this stuff to be easier said than done, and these lessons have gotten harder as they went along.  The first one was about breathing, and was straightforward: breathing meditation is a simple concentration exercise anyone can do with minimal instruction.  Each subsequent lesson introduced a new sort of concentration exercise—on your body, your state of mind, and in this one, your thoughts—and they’ve gotten harder.  It all sounds clear when Fronsdal presents it, but it’s not so simple to actually do.

The notes below are other things that stuck out to me, or that I felt were most useful for me to remember.

“Keep it simple. If it’s not simple, it’s not mindfulness.”

Notes and Takeaways

On the tendency for our inner voices to repeat themselves:

“If someone walked next to me and repeated to me the same thing over and over again as much as I say things to myself, I would doubt their sanity.”

On the difference between thinking and what we think about:

“Thinking and what we think about are two different things.  But we don’t often remember that, because our thoughts about something is the medium by which we know it.”

Fronsdal suggests people invest a lot of authority in their thoughts, but those thoughts can be a veil covering up, or a kind of a symptom of, some other thing.  By focusing on the thoughts, then, we might miss that other thing.

On underlying causes, and more on the difference between thinking and causes:

During a Q&A, someone notes he feels a lot of anxiety.  During the class’s guided meditation, he says, he managed to focus on his breathing, which was nice, but he recognized the anxiety wasn’t gone.  It would return.  Fronsdal says:

“The stronger the thinking is, the more likely it is there’s an emotion that’s fueling it or connected to it.  The more repetitive the thought is...the more likely it is it has some emotion connected to it.  People who spend a lot of time planning, for example, chances are very high that what’s fueling that is anxiety or apprehension…  You can let go of the planning thoughts as much as you want, but because the anxiety is there, it’s going to pump out more planning thoughts.  ... Some people are very good at letting go of thoughts, but [the thoughts] come right back because the underlying [cause] has not been addressed.”  

Addressing the questioner more specifically, he adds: 

“The anxiety you have [may not be] the same thing as the problem.  ...It’s possible [to have a problem that] needs to be solved, and not have anxiety at all.”

On failing to focus on your thinking:

Another questioner notes how he tried to focus on his thoughts but they disappeared.  He said it felt like he was trying to catch fish with his hands.

Fronsdal answers at length, but ends by suggesting this teaches a lesson about how insubstantial thoughts can be.  Use this experience, he tells the student.  You don’t have to fight it, to work hard to try to catch the thoughts.  Just focus on them, and if they go away, that’s fine, and you can try returning your focus to your breathing.

On narration vs awareness, thoughtful knowing vs silent knowing:

A student mentions her habit of narrating what's going on in her mind during meditation, i.e., “I am sitting here in this room, I am wearing black pants, I am now narrating the color of my clothes...” 

Fronsdal says, “Whatever you're doing, note it, be mindful of it, recognizing what you’re doing.  Don't be quick to try to fix it.”  Just notice it.  He continues:

“Thoughtfulness is not mindfulness.  Mindfulness is a process of knowing what’s happening that bridges the world of silent knowing and very simple recognition of what is.  It’s more a silent knowing than it is a thoughtful knowing.”

That said, you don’t have to have a completely silent mind.  “There are very simple, rudimentary thoughts that do go on.  So in your situation, you’re narrating away, you finally notice you’re doing that, and so [you can] quietly say, ‘narrating’.” It helps to label, if it’s easy to do so.  Something about the labeling helps create space between you and the thought that’s happening.

On using mental notes:

Building on the prior takeaway, when practicing mindfulness of thinking, “sometimes it’s very useful to use what’s called a mental note, a label.”  He continues:

“So, if you’re thinking, you might just say to yourself, “thinking, thinking”. And it’s a way of stepping back and really recognizing [that] you’re thinking here, as opposed to continuing to think and being involved in it.  If it’s obvious, you can be more specific, you can say, [for example], planning, remembering, fantasizing.  But don’t spend a lot of time thinking about a specific label, just [do it] if it’s really obvious.  But sometimes the more specific label helps us become a little more independent from [the thought], a little more distanced from it, not caught in the grip of it.” 

On scanning your body and relaxing, at the start of a meditation:

In the last lesson, the guided meditation ran through a number of steps that felt to me like a template for things you could do during meditation beyond a focus on breathing.  In this lesson’s guided meditation, there’s another option added to the template:

“Scan your body for easy places to relax your body.  Your face muscles, your shoulders, your belly, let it hand forward and out of you can—anywhere you can relax, try to let it relax, soften.”

On thinking this is all getting kinda complicated:

I mentioned in my summary above that this stuff’s getting more difficult as it goes.  Fronsdal addresses this.  If you’re trying it out and finding it’s getting complicated, “don’t worry about all this. ...If all you do is go back to the first [lesson] and just do mindfulness of breathing, just stay with your breath, trust your breath, [then, sooner or later,] one of these other areas will come find you.”

“Keep it simple,” he says.  “If it’s not simple, it’s not mindfulness.”