How to Deal with Pesky Thoughts in Meditation - Goodlife Zen

How to Deal with Pesky Thoughts in Meditation

thoughts in meditation

 Are you often bothered by pesky thoughts in meditation?

Maybe you even think your meditation is hopeless because your thoughts are all over the place?

Don’t worry. It’s a common experience.

Our thoughts can sweep us along like a cork bobbing in a rough sea with rips, eddies and choppy waves dragging us this way and that.

It can seem like a miracle when you struggle to the surface and find moments of tranquility. However, thoughts are not the enemy of meditation. We can learn to work skillfully with our thoughts to find peace and calmness.

As Joh Kabat-Zinn says,

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf – Jon Kabat-Zinn

If you’re not sure how to meditate, click here to learn 10 important tips.

Before I show you a simple way of dealing with the wandering mind, let’s talk about the different types of thoughts.

Some thoughts are easy to deal with and others are more difficult. The more challenging ones are fuelled by strong emotions.

If a thought is fuelled by a strong emotion, it appears in the mind as a mind-movie. Just think back to the last row you had with your loved one. Your angry thoughts are mostly mind-movies about what he or she did and you want to tell him or her.

Thoughts fuelled by emotions are like gripping movies of the mind.

In these mind-movies, we are invariably the hero. Have you noticed that?

These mind-movies are very hard to get out of because we like watching ourselves in the role of the hero. You can sit back and watch how you tell your boss exactly where to get off – instead of being shamed by him or her. There are some popular mind-movies, like these ones:

  • “What I’ll do when I win lotto/ get a high-paying job/ move to somewhere else.
  • “How I’ll feel when I finally meet the perfect partner…”
  • “Why he/she is wrong, and I’m right”

Do you recognize them?

Some mind-movies are more like nightmares. They are fuelled by fear. The theme of such mind movies often starts with ‘What if….?”

I remember a time when I was due for exploratory surgery. My mind circled endlessly around the possible outcomes of the operation. In one such mind-movie, I saw my friends and family standing around my coffin, crying their eyes out! As it turned out, the operation gave me a clear bill of health.

As the philosopher Michel de Montaigne said:

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes – most of which never happened.

Besides fear, other emotions that fuel persistent thoughts anger are anger, jealousy, and grief

I call the restless mind fuelled by emotions the ruminating mind. 

Each type of thought needs a different approach. Let’s take a look at different kinds of thoughts and how to deal with them.

Do You Recognize These Five Types of Thoughts?

There are five different types of thoughts:

1. The Ruminating Mind

Ruminations are recurring thoughts fuelled by emotion. These kind of thoughts circle around your mind over and over and are persistent. Here are five steps to escape circular thoughts:

Step 1: The moment you notice that you are in the grip of rumination, label your thought process: “Oh, ruminating mind.”

Step 2: Notice which emotion is fuelling your circular thoughts. Name the emotion.

Step 3: Notice where this emotion shows itself in your body. For example, you may notice that fear feels like a tight band across your chest or anger feels like roiling heat in the belly.

Step 4: Focus gently on the area where the emotion lives in the body. Imagine your breath flowing through and around that area.

Step 5: Focus on your breath flowing in and out. Pay tender regard to the area where you can feel the emotion in your body.

When you notice you have been swepped away by your ruminating mind, go to step 1 – without a backward glance. It may take a while for you to settle down.

2. The Planning Mind

This is the mind that starts making mental lists during meditation. Planning thoughts are usually fuelled by mild anxiety but are relatively easy to deal with.

All you need to do is to shine the soft light of your attention onto your planning mind. When you recognize that you’ve been immersed in planning, name your thoughts with a little smile: “Ah, Planning Mind!” Then return your focus to the breath, flowing in and out.

If you’re anxious about something, you may find that your planning mind persists. That’s okay. Just name your planning mind and you will gradually sink deeper into meditation.

3. The Problem-Solving Mind

This is the mind that gnaws away at a problem like a dog at a bone.

Our brain doesn’t like mysteries. If there is a problem we want to solve, the mind tends to return to it, over and over.  However, creative solutions most often arrive when the mind is in a relaxed state.

If you notice you trying to solve problems in your meditation, name the thought cheerfully, “Ah – problem-solving mind!” and then return to focusing on your breath.

4. The Dreamy Mind

The dreamy mind produces long, meandering thought-strings, linked by association. For example, you might hear a dog bark in the street and that reminds you of the dog you used to have as a child “…who used to play with me and my best friend Tom…I wonder where Tom is these days?…Maybe I should use Google to search for him…oh, I forgot to send off the email to my sister…I wonder how long she’s going to stay with that brute of a husband…”

The dreamy mind responds to resetting your posture. If our posture is slumped, we tend to drift off into dream-land. Straighten your back and make sure your head is upright and you’ll find more focus in your meditation. You might also like to try meditating with eyes open.

5. The Random Mind

This is the mind that produces fragments of thoughts. Maybe you suddenly think of what you had for tea yesterday, or that you forgot to buy milk. This mind is like clouds that drift across the clear sky.

Don’t hook into the thoughts, just let them float away. You’ll find that as you go deeper in meditation, random thought will die down and eventually even cease for a while.

When you begin to observe your thoughts, you’ll notice that we tend to surface naturally for short moments from thought streams and then dive back into them again. The key to working with thoughts is to respond with the skillful action the moment you notice you have become immersed.

Whatever kind of thoughts you experience, the first skillful action is to name them.

It’s very important to be gentle with yourself.

Notice the judgments that come with the process of being carried away by busy thoughts: “I’m useless at this!’, “I’m just not cut out for meditation!”, “Others are always focussed, but my mind is all over the place!”

Be gentle with yourself and accept that your mind will sometimes wander off during meditation. Even if you think your meditation is ‘bad’,  your life will still be transformed over time.

The power of meditation comes from a place that is far away from notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Meditation is about losing your way and finding your way back home to the present moment, the Now.

It’s about falling down and getting back up.

Here is a lovely story about falling down from the early Christian tradition:

A monk looking for some guidance and encouragement goes to Abba Sisoius and asks:
“What am I to do since I have fallen?”
The Abba replies: “Get up.”
“I did get up, but I fell again.”
“Get up again.”
“I did, but I must admit that I fell once again. So what should I do?”
“Do not fall down without getting back up.”

‘Good’ meditation doesn’t mean staying present without wavering; it means coming back to the present moment over and over again.

We need to let go of our thoughts and ruminations without a backward glance and celebrate coming home to the Now.


About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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