Should I be Thinking in Meditation?
There’s typically confusion about the role of thinking in meditation.
Thinking is the structured use of mental reasoning, where we verbalize or talk to ourselves inside our head. Thinking is that internal dialogue — the ‘voice in your head’. The contents of that dialogue is influenced by what we hear from teachers, parents, media, and those closest to us. When our thoughts repeat, patterns of belief or logic get set in place, that in turn guide our actions, behaviors or compulsions. Thinking can be controlled, clear and deliberate, or it can be chaotic, impulsive and seem beyond our control. For a lot of people, thinking is their most dominant sense of consciousness, possibly even one that they find intrusive and even impossible to turn off.
In meditation, our objective is to increase the level of deliberateness of our thinking, calm down chaotic, impulsive and unwanted thoughts, and eventually learn how to switch off our thinking entirely if we so choose.
Thinking is just one of many consciousness senses that we strive to understand and improve by practicing meditation. In meditation, our objective is to always be clear and deliberate about which consciousness sense we are using at all times, and to be clear what information we receive when we use that consciousness sense. During meditation, if you find yourself in an internal dialogue without intending to be, then the best thing to do is make a deliberate decision to direct all your available attention to your thinking for a few minutes. If you resist your thoughts because you have some idea that meditation is not about thinking, you’ll create stress and tension.
Also, if you are going to think, make sure the dialogue you are having with yourself is clear, understandable, and coherent. Only when you have taken ownership of your internal dialogue should you decide very deliberately to direct your attention to another consciousness sense, such as feeling, imagination, or memory. If possible, avoid jumping between thinking and emotion, or thinking and imagination, or thinking and memory, unless switching your attention was what you intended to do.
Thinking is an Essential Tool for Success in Life.
We have to be able to think in order to formulate words and put them in a specific order to communicate with others. We can also ‘think to ourselves’, where we have an inner communication or dialogue with ourselves using language, stories, beliefs and ideas. The quality of that internal dialogue can be an essential part of any success strategy. Really successful people often have very high-quality internal dialogues. This in turn allows them to tell stories and communicate beliefs and ideas in words in a way that influences others to help us achieve both our goals and theirs.
To evolve and grow, we need thinking to articulate our personal stories as a timeline of our history, and as a way to sort through our ideas and beliefs and make clear decisions in life. While feeling is also a key component of decision making for most people, thinking excels at bringing and making sense of what may have worked in the past for us and evaluating it. That can increase the probability that we will eventually choose a successful course of action in the future.
When we practice very deliberate thinking during meditation, it will speed up the process of learning to meditate because we can use that clear internal dialogue to articulate our experiences of meditation more carefully and start to become more observant. It will also help our thinking improve in clarity and structure, which can benefit many other parts of life.
How Thinking differs from Feeling
When we use careful, deliberate thinking to verbalize some of our life experience, either by a private internal dialogue, speaking it out loud to someone else, or writing it down in a journal, we engage parts of our brain that deal with long term, time-based concepts. That’s why thinking is an essential tool for planning, organizing, and understanding how we anticipate future events to turn out.
Feeling, on the other hand is a very different process. It uses different areas of the brain from thinking. We feel in present time. Just like when we are thinking, when we are feeling in meditation, we should direct all our attention to feeling emotions fully. Try and resist the urge to jump back into thinking by telling stories about our emotions or attempting to understand them logically. As soon as you find yourself storytelling, justifying, or judging yourself for the way you are experiencing that emotion, you’ve probably slipped back into thinking. One of the core skills in meditation is to become much more aware of the difference between thinking and feeling, and to notice when we slip from feeling an emotion, to describing an emotion using thinking. The way we do this is by treating thinking and feeling as very different senses, and deliberately deciding which one we are doing.
Learning to differentiate between thinking and feeling is often a huge challenge when people learn to meditate. Often our personal internal space is a chaotic mess of thoughts, emotions, memories, images and instinctive reactions, all blending into one another. Part of the process of learning to meditate is to slow down everything that is occurring to you within your internal space, and to become hyper-aware of which consciousness sense you are using at all times. When we are more aware of our senses, you become more present, and more attentive to the world both outside of you and inside of you.
If you want to delve into this some more, try this simple meditation exercise which trains you to deliberately switch between some of your consciousness senses. You can also read A Model for Mindfulness, to become more clear about how to differentiate between the different senses we can practice during meditation.
Emotions can be difficult to experience, especially negative ones. Telling ourselves a story about an emotion that we are feeling, rather than just feeling the emotion itself can often help us deal with a negative emotion or avoid really feeling them. It's often a near instantaneous process. When we are not aware of how we automatically avoid feeling our emotions by switching to thinking, we are losing a key tool that we can use to manage our lives in a more effective way.
There is a whole field of therapy that essentially attempts to convert feelings into thoughts that describe emotions in a way that makes sense. While this can be very powerful if skillfully done, that’s not what we should be striving to do in meditation. In meditation, if we decide to feel, we feel with 100% of our attention. Then if we decide to think, we switch our attention 100% to thinking. It’s a very different way of operating.
Thinking and Language
Because of the close association of thinking with language, people that speak the same language often have similar ways of thinking, even when they may be from different countries. This partly explains the concept of cultural differences and is the source of much wonderful and surprisingly accurate culture humor. The British empire was successful in part because in every nation in their empire that they colonized; English became the common language. This influenced the people to think in a uniform way.
People instinctively grasp that when we speak the same language, we are more likely to think in a similar way, despite different cultural backgrounds. In countries with large numbers of immigrants, you often find pressure for immigrants to learn the language of the majority. Thinking in a similar way helps create cultural cohesion and reduce conflict as groups integrate into the culture that is dominant. Learning to take on diverse ways of thinking is critical for societies to be able to evolve and generate new social and business ideas, and also to understand people that have different experiences to our own. In countries with lots of diversity, the places (usually cities) with the most diversity are usually the most productive and prosperous places.
English speakers are typically quite organized and there are clear rules of behavior. Yet the nature of English also requires them to value flexibility and tolerate exceptions. These traits represent English as a language: structured, lots of rules that must be followed, yet also many exceptions that must simply be learned. As anyone who has ever tried to teach English to a non-English speaker knows, these exceptions are an often inexplicable and frustrating part of the process of learning English.
In contrast to English, the German language is full of extraordinarily precise words that describe specific situations, ways of thinking that are uniquely German, and even emotional nuances that can be considered typically German. This is reflected directly in German culture, which is extremely rule based, and exceptions are typically not tolerated at all, or cause quite a lot of stress or consternation when they occur. Try (safely) crossing a pedestrian crossing in a German city when the little walking man symbol (the ‘Ampelmannchen’) is still red, and you will quickly learn that Germans are very comfortable with loudly explaining the correct rules of how to cross the street to adult strangers, with the sort of tone normally reserved for scolding a four-year-old child.
Some of these precise German words, for example ‘Schadenfreude’, spread to English because they usefully describe complex emotions in a way that takes an entire sentence to describe in English. After marrying my German wife and moving to Germany, I made a great effort to become fluent in the language. I got to love the precise and exacting delivery that German requires, especially the ‘Hochdeutsche’ that is spoken by highly educated people. When I moved to the United States, even though English was my mother tongue, I struggled for a few months to accurately express myself, because I was missing so many of the precise German words and expressions that I had come to love.
When countries with different languages need to negotiate, not only is the challenge of translation to deal with, but there is the challenge that language tends to encourage biases in the type of thinking that people do in that country.
Thinking does not have to be based on language. Mathematics is a non-linguistic way of thinking, although typically requires complex constructs of logic and specific concepts in order to come to conclusions.
Extremely deliberate and systematic thinking is a very powerful and effective way of sorting through what we are experiencing, remembering and feeling, and coming up with conclusions, actions or desires as a result. Thinking is a very useful and extraordinarily powerful internal consciousness sense. With care, we can ensure that thinking doesn’t dominate our consciousness senses. Meditation can help to balance our thinking with other consciousness senses, and we can live a more satisfying and fulfilled life as a result.
- Does thinking dominate your internal world?
- Is high quality, clear or demanding thinking essential for your work or profession?
- Do your thoughts ever run away uncontrollably, or repeat endlessly?
- Do you rate your thinking skills as good or bad? If so, why?
- Have you ever had your ability to think clearly temporarily break down? What were the circumstances when that happened?
- When you are tired, what happens to your thinking?
- How clearly do you articulate your own thoughts? Are you deliberate about your thoughts, or are they just ‘there’?
- Do you take responsibility for your thoughts, or does someone else seem to just put them in your head?
- Do you regularly use caffeine, drugs, supplements or alcohol to modify your thinking abilities?
This article is adapted from Peter Hill’s upcoming book ‘Reality Check — How Meditation moved from Mysticism to Neuroscience’, which is scheduled for release in 2022.
About the Author
Peter J Hill loves to take time to think and feel deeply. Over thirty years, he has studied and practiced dozens of meditation, self-development and spiritual techniques. Guided by neuroscience rather than mysticism, his mission is to teach people to live better lives by using consciousness more effectively.