Meditating on Thoughts or Observing Thoughts

A colleague and I have been corresponding about meditation research and our personal experiences of meditation.  He recently wrote me that it’s a widespread belief that in meditation, a person can observe their own thoughts.  That idea didn’t make sense in his personal experience, as for him, thoughts were a process, not an “object” you could look at.  How could thoughts be observed?

I found his question stimulating and wrote him as follows.

Glad you raised this issue, let me try to be more specific.  Perhaps my ruminations will be of use to you.

Back when I was trying to learn and practice simple concentrative or vipassana (insight) meditation procedures, the instructions would say something like pay attention to, just focus on the sensation of breathing (typical concentrative) or on whatever the most prominent bodily sensation of the moment was, without trying to change it, having equanimity about it (common vipassana focus).  But “thought” to me meant that for a second or two I would be able to have strong awareness of the designated focus, and then at some later time (too embarrassingly often minutes) I realized that a verbal thought and/or internal visual imagery/thought had come along and I had been totally swept away on a long train of such thoughts, with no contact with the designated focus sensation at all during that time.  Then I could feel embarrassed or guilty at being such a poor meditator and try to focus again.  A few more seconds and off I went again on some new thought train, quite involuntarily.  There was no “observer” of the thought train, the contents of the thought train were all of my conscious experience.

My inability to not get carried away like this was what led me to the conclusion years ago that whatever special talent it took to be a meditator, I didn’t have it, so I pretty much gave up attempts at formal meditation.  As I’ve lately expressed it, “meditation” always seemed to mean “First quiet your mind and then…..” and I could never get to the “and then….” part.  [Fortunately I also discovered Gurdjieffian self-remembering around this time which worked very well for me, so my personal mindfulness life did not come to a standstill, but that’s another story.]

The last few years of meditation training with Shinzen Young have been a tremendous change.  He first trained me and others to observe the flow of body sensation, basic vipassana, with as much clarity, concentration and equanimity as possible.  Then on one retreat he had each of us imagine, eyes closed, various visual images and note “where” the images seemed to be.  For me, as for most people, it was like there was a projection screen behind my eyes, and most of my visual imagery occurred there.  If I kept some attention on the “tactile” quality of that area, I became much more sensitive to the visual images that appeared there.  If I slipped down some into the hypnagogic state – and sleepiness comes way too easily for me when I attempt to meditate! – the imagery was much more intense.  As I and others developed some skill at this kind of vipassana, Shinzen reminded us that visual imagery was one aspect of “thought.”  Well of course he was right, but I had never conceptualized it that way – I had learned to observe an aspect of thought.  Curiously, the particulars of my visual imagery generally seem unrelated to other conscious concerns of mine, although the dreamlets may start from something I was thinking about before.  I was observing, rather than producing this imagistic thought, although at times I can deliberately alter this kind of imagery.

Then another exploration exercise on that retreat, focusing on internal auditory imagery.  Perhaps it was in one’s own voice, perhaps in other voices, perhaps just sounds: where did it seem located?  For me, practically all of this “talking to myself” comes from the middle of my head, between my ears, up at the back of my throat.  Compared to visual imagery, which may range from vague, shifting shapes and colors to more concrete forms to little dreams, “dreamlets,” auditory imagery, “talking to myself” is very specific: I can report the exact words I heard.  If I keep some “tactile” attention on that spot I am much more sensitive to detecting such auditory imagery.

And curiously, if I keep that area tactilely “relaxed,” there is almost never any auditory imagery, so I begin to suspect that the old theory that internal conversation is subtle activation of one’s vocal cords has something to it.  I can make my mind much quieter that way.

I still often find I have been carried away from whatever the formal focus of a meditation was supposed to be by a stream of thoughts, by a stream of visual and auditory images.  But sometimes I become aware of auditory imagery, talking to myself, within a few words of it starting, although this conscious attention on it usually stops it.  Then I’m aware of the auditory quiet.

So insofar as observing one’s thoughts means observing the visual and auditory components of it, I’ve come a long way.  I believe there is a subtler form of auditory imagery too, although I seldom detect it.  Shinzen once described detecting it with an image that resonated with me from going fishing during my boyhood: it’s like picking up a cloth bag full of wriggling worms.  Something, lots of somethings, is/are happening, but it’s vague and non-specific.

OK, that’s what I mean nowadays by observing thoughts, and it’s a much clearer conception and experience to me than it used to be.  I guess I never heard what “observing thoughts” meant in the meditative traditions, perhaps they never really clarify it, but I think I picked up an idea that one should have been able to observe one’s own thoughts the way you could listen to someone else’s talking, understanding it while having your own independent stream of consciousness.  It’s never been like that for me, perhaps it’s not possible…..Does any of this resonate with your experience?

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