Eight days deep into a Vipassana silent meditation retreat, I finally got there. I finally developed the discipline to still my mind. To not entertain distractions and keep the perpetual cycle of inner discourse going.
You see, even when you are at a meditation retreat, it is easy to distract yourself. It is easy to be curious about what the person next to you in the meditation hall is doing. Or wonder if it is sunny outside. Or start to drift off and think about what they will serve for lunch. Or remember that time a significant other said something and you flipped your lid. Or that one time in childhood. You get the picture.
Even at a meditation retreat, your thoughts will still be there. For where are they to go?
After several days and many hours of diligent, patient meditation, I finally got to that bullshit-free-zone. I was starting to ride my breath smoothly, one at a time. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Deep attention, deep relaxation. Moments coming and going freely. No past regrets, no future plans. No aversions, no grasping, no craving for something different.
It was like floating close to an ocean’s beach, with the thoughts being the waves that buoy you up and back down. The peak of the wave would come, touch my consciousness, and the memory would pass. Then, the next wave would come, reach my shores, and then recede back into space. After a few
more moments, another wave. And so on.
My thoughts kept coming in, except I wasn’t continuing on and on and extending the initial thought. One thought was followed by the next. My thoughts were merely coming in and simply leaving. No extension, perturbation, commiseration, or rumination. Observing that space between stimulus and response, to paraphrase Victor Frankl, and embracing that freedom of staying in meditation.
After 10 days, the meditation retreat was over and I was back in the real world. Responsibilities, bills, deadlines, emails, social media, family, relationships, etc. Outside of the womb of the retreat center where my sole job was to meditate, I found it hard to find my center.
It was easy to get sucked back into old thoughts, patterns, and distractions, but now, I was more equipped with tools to practice and use. At the retreat center, I grocked that the majority of my thoughts were meaningless distractions. Distractions away from staying present. Distractions from pursuing goals with intention. Distractions from letting yourself play and enjoy the moment.
To make friends with my thoughts, I knew that it would be important to develop practices that could be easily done in the course of everyday life.
There are many mindfulness practices which are helpful, like gratitude lists or yoga, but I find it also important to have some tools handy for when persistent thoughts take up your attention and knock you off center. These are tools to help us get through those times when we get stuck, and all the thinking in the world won’t solve our problems.
Here are some techniques that I have cultivated for when those troubling thoughts come in. My troubling thoughts are often around social media, workplace disagreements, family, and feeling like I am not being acknowledged.
It might take some observation to notice what your unhelpful thought patterns are, or maybe you are well aware of your greatest hits and have your discography catalogued and curated.
4 Steps to Letting Go of Persistent Thoughts
Stage One: Mindfulness of the Moment.
When you notice these unhelpful thoughts come in, first pause. Come back to your breath. Inhale in, exhale out. Bring in all the senses. Notice how it feels in your lungs and chest as you breathe, feel the exhale as it goes out. If it is hard to discern sensations, you can simply note – Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
Once you start to feel your breath. Bring in more sensations. Use the physicality of your experience as the focus. Intrusive thoughts often require surrender. As tempting as it might be to try and solve the problem, relax the problem-solving side of your mind and bring in more physical sensation. Feel your feet on the ground. Look around you, what colors do you notice? What textures do you see? What sounds are around? What brings ease and levity back to the moment?
Focus on equanimity. Being objective as you can. Feel free to stay in this space for as long as you like. This is not something to get right. Feel free to navigate, explore, and play.
Stage Two: Emanate Loving Kindness.
If mindfulness in the moment is not working for me, I then start to send loving kindness to the offender. For instance, if you are driving and someone barges into your lane unexpectedly and simple mindfulness does not work, you can send them metta (loving kindness).
You don’t have to get caught up in who is right and who is wrong. You can start to soften around the edges, relax your shoulders, breathe deep. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you be free. I find that this usually eases the tension in my body and helps me let go of the things that I cannot control. And really, who knows why that person cut you off. Maybe they were just clumsy and made a mistake. Maybe they were having a bad day and were distracted. Maybe they were tired. Maybe they really are that asshole you make them out to be. Whatever the case may be, don’t they too deserve loving kindness?
Stage Three: Send Loving Kindness to Yourself.
If sending loving kindness out to others isn’t helping, I find it helpful to direct the loving kindness towards myself. May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe, may I be free. A few mental repetitions of this helps me understand and relax.
Often I am just tired or dealing with other stresses. Often, it is just me having a bad experience and me projecting by experience out onto the world. And then, me getting stuck and convinced that my projections are actually real. The loving kindness is like sweetness, like honey. Like a salve to soothe where you hurt. Pause and allow for you to give loving kindness to yourself. It may sound weird, but it works. The proof is in the puddin, good lookin.
Stage Four: Treat Yourself.
At this point if these mindfulness techniques are not working, you may need to spend extended time to recover. Maybe that means going to an intense yoga class to shake out the physical energy. Maybe it’s doing restorative yoga or bathing in sound to unplug. Maybe it’s a bike ride in the woods. Guitar. Ecstatic Dance. Whatever.
Note to yourself that this moment will pass and that you will know what to do when the time is right. And that, when you have an opportunity, you will give yourself a little bit of extra sweetness to help with your healing.
As someone who is often stuck on my thoughts, I realize that I don’t have to stay stuck.
If yoga, mindfulness, and meditation have taught me anything, they’ve taught me about the peace that is right outside the mental prison. The prison that I often create. Persistent patterns of thought are incredibly common, but the good thing is that with practice and patience, they can be assuaged.
Unhelpful thoughts don’t have to persist. Equanimity meditations, loving kindness, and deep healing experiences can all be used when that thought train comes.
It is a gift that we get to learn from those teachers who came before, that we can learn from our friends, and that we can cultivate a harmonious future for those yet to come.
It is a gift to learn what we can from our own discomfort.