I am often asked what I think about when I meditate. Many people think meditation is about having no ideas or no thoughts at all. This is impossible. Even monks with tens of thousands of hours of meditation have thoughts coming, just slower and fewer.
My experience after more than a year of meditating for about an hour a day (including a ten-day retreat where I sat for ten hours a day) is that my brain gets much slower when I meditate. I still get many ideas but it doesn’t feel like a crazy monkey getting bombarded with ideas you get at the beginning. It’s like my whole body metabolism slows down. I could not sit still for more than fifteen minutes a year ago. Now I sit for an hour and I have no pain; it feels like ten minutes. I breathe very slowly and manage not to move a hair for that entire hour. My brain does the same — it’s slow and gets many fewer ideas.
I use the technique I learned during the Vipassana retreat. I observe my body sensations “from the top of the head to the feet, scanning the entire body permanently.” Sensations are broad and generalized at the beginning, like itching or pain. The more you do it the more you feel delicate, subtle sensations such as warm or cold air touching your skin in areas of your body you did not even think could make you feel anything.
Each time an idea shows up in your brain, observe it like a cloud going through the sky but don’t stay in it — just let it go. With some training it works really well and you can just stay a few seconds on an incoming idea then go back to observing your body sensations which according to scientific research is good for your brain.
Here is a typology of my thoughts.
1. Persistent thoughts
Those are the tough ones. They come back all the time. It can be guilt you feel about something and you had it for years. It can be your business not doing great and your brain can’t help but focus on it. It could be something about your children’s education that you can’t solve easily and is here to stay for years.
2. The present
I often observe my brain caught in the present. Thinking about dinner tonight. An annoying noise I can hear. A call I need to make. Those thoughts don’t matter at all and you know they are going to disappear in a few hours or days yet they are still here and “catch you” even though you know it is futile to think them.
3. Clarity on complex decisions
You have to make decisions constantly in your life. Some decisions are really tough. You don’t know what to do. Even if you observe your sensations and try not to focus on anything, decision thoughts keep coming back because your brain wants to resolve the problem. I discovered during my ten day retreat that as those decision thoughts kept coming back each time they were a little different. Like if there was a new context or I was seeing the problem from a different angle. As I meditate I feel I’m doing a 360 of major problems in my mind. There is a possibility it stops and meditation brings clarity. Your brain brings you every possible angle of a decision until it stops because it feels like you covered it all. Then the decision becomes obvious and that thought stops showing up. And you feel amazing.
4. Totally new ideas
Today as I meditated I got a great idea. It doesn’t happen during each meditation but when it does it’s a “wow”. It’s the most obvious benefit of meditation. Your mind gets so calm and clear that ideas you would likely not have otherwise emerge. It could be a business idea or a book idea. It could be something you want to do. It could be understanding a conversation in a way you had not seen before. It’s awesome.
Each time after a few seconds I go back to my body scan and my sensations. I try to look at my brain as a scientist observing something and try to notice patterns. As you get more aware of how your brain works you can try to change it. I try to put persistent ideas or disturbing ideas in the context of my whole life. Will this matter in 10 years? Will it change anything significant in my life? Generally the answer is no and it makes those thoughts less persistent. It’s exactly how you train your brain to ignore itching sensations of pain going through your body as you meditate for an hour. As you focus on the pain it quickly diminishes or goes away — it takes some training though. It’s the same with those thoughts you want to control or get rid of.
Don’t try not to have ideas when you meditate, on the contrary welcome them and let them go. If they come back it’s ok; your brain is processing them and showing you a different point of view. At one point it will stop. And then you have that rare, blissful moment of peace.