Allowing your thoughts – Part 2

 If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent!

Pema Chödrön

We can think of our thoughts like trains which pull into a station – we can decide whether we want to get on a particular train or not. One train might be ‘planning the summer holiday’, and this is indeed the perfect time to start planning, so we get on this ‘train of thought’ and ride along for a few stops. But if the train is called ‘anxiously ruminating on something which happened three weeks ago and which I really need to move on from’, then we can decide to let this particular train go past.

Becoming aware of our thought patterns, of which train has pulled into the station just now, can take a little practice. Often, thoughts seem to have their own momentum, taking us along for a ride we don’t seem to remember signing up for. In order to get off the train before it takes us to places we don’t want to go to, it is helpful to develop our present-moment awareness.

‘What is really happening right now?’ We take a moment to pause, to tune in. We notice the breath in our body. It is quite remarkable, the way our body is continually adjusting to the breath flowing in, the breath flowing out. Where do we feel the movement most strongly? In the belly, or in the chest expanding and contracting? Or even at the tip of the nose, the cool air entering, the warm air leaving? We might listen to the sounds around us – with a sense of being open and curious. What is the temperature of the air? Perhaps we can do a quick body scan – noticing where the body might be in contact with the ground or a chair, or any strong sensations. After a few minutes of this, we will probably notice that our thoughts have shifted in some way.

It can also be helpful to place our thoughts into a larger perspective. In Buddhism this is sometimes called ‘big sky awareness’. We can think of our mind as the vast open sky, and our thoughts like clouds which float across the sky, coming and going, fleeting and ephemeral. Other helpful nature images can be seeing our thoughts like leaves floating past in a stream, or standing behind a waterfall and watching our thoughts tumbling down in front of us like water, while we remain dry and safe.

If we find our thoughts really affecting the quality of our lives, it can also be useful to seek counselling or other supports, and/or to learn mindfulness from a qualified teacher in the context of a supportive group. Strong, insistent thought patterns can be a signal pointing towards unresolved emotions, and we might benefit from skilled support as we work through these.

Our thoughts are just part of who we are. If we don’t give them too much power, but still engage with them respectfully, our thoughts can be friendly allies rather than something we need to fight against and control.

Weekly practice idea:

Stop from time to time and ask yourself – ‘what is really happening right now?’ Tune into your body, into the environment. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Allowing your thoughts

‘The cat ignored becomes the tiger.’

Carl Jung

‘Allowing your thoughts’ is the second of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five Pathways to Self Compassion’. When we are caught in unhelpful thinking patterns, it can be tempting to try and control our thoughts. Yet as the quote by Carl Jung illustrates, this can often lead to giving thoughts more strength and power instead. In fact, one of the main ways in which we can get entangled in negative thinking is by giving thoughts far more power than they deserve. As the wonderful quote from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy goes:

‘Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.’

‘Allowing your thoughts’ doesn’t mean letting our thoughts run riot and out of control. For example, if we’re obsessed with thoughts of revenge, or enmeshed in a constant stream of negative self-talk, this is clearly not helpful. Yet positive thinking, where we manically try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, also doesn’t work, because it’s not based on reality. The mindful approach to our thoughts is to avoid either extreme – we don’t suppress our thoughts, but neither do we let them run our lives.

Thoughts become powerful when we get entangled in them, when we invest them with emotional energy and a narrative. For example, we might feel that during a meeting at work, other people were listened to far more attentively and respectfully than we were. This may in fact be what happened. If we have a strong narrative in our lives about being treated unjustly, this may evoke powerful emotions in us, leading to obsess about this for days to come. And because of our strong confirmation bias, where we actively seek out evidence which supports our beliefs, any future slight, whether real or imagined, will feed the flame of unhelpful thinking.

Mindfulness helps to bring us back to earth – to be aware of what is happening right now, rather than what we might be imagining. Next week, we will look at some simple mindfulness practices which can help us to allow the natural flow of our thoughts to occur, neither blocking them, nor becoming entangled by them.

Weekly practice idea:

Take time this week to notice your patterns of thinking. Are there certain thinking patterns you seem to return to again and again?

Anja Tanhane

Nourishing our thoughts

Considering they’re ephemeral and secret, our thoughts can be amazingly powerful. We usually have pretty clear ideas about what kind of thoughts are acceptable to us, and which ones are not. Sometimes we may feel bombarded by our thoughts, to the point they become oppressive; whereas at other times, we might feel quite at ease with the way they come and go in our minds. At times our thinking can lead us astray, causing us to lose touch with what’s going on. We’ve probably all had the disconcerting experience of believing something to be true, only to find out later that it wasn’t. This can be the case with abstract facts, but can also include our judgments about people, including ourselves. We seem to be most vulnerable to being lead astray in our thinking when we are feeling stressed or under threat in some way. In those circumstances, it’s easy to mistake the rope for a snake, or the tired look on the face of a colleague for a disapproving frown which might spell trouble for us.

In the coming weeks we will look at how we can often over-identify with our thoughts, and some strategies for loosening their grip on us. In the meantime, it can be interesting to reflect on how we actually nourish our thoughts. Just as the food we eat has an impact on our bodies, so do the sense impressions we receive impact on our thoughts. This doesn’t mean we should try to become puritanical, and only allow ‘pure’ sounds, sights etc into our consciousness. Yet the sensory information we take in does make a difference. An extreme example might be someone who is locked in their room, playing violent video games for 18 hours every day. Or else listening to angry talk-back radio all day long, gradually allowing the anger and hostility to seep into their mind. We can easily see how neither of those scenarios are conducive to clear and compassionate thinking. At the other end of the spectrum, spending even ten minutes in a pleasant outdoor environment such as a nice park or garden can allow our thinking to become more calm and positive.

We don’t want to build a ‘cone of silence’ around us, but on the other hand, we often do have choices about some of the sensory information we nourish our thinking with. Nowadays, I find that I often drive without the radio on. This doesn’t mean I have a rule that I’m ‘not allowed’ to listen to the radio when I drive. Sometimes I listen to the radio, and other times I listen to music. Yet after a busy day, it’s often a relief to not add yet more information to a mind which has already been buzzing for hours at work.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, pay attention to the ways in which you ‘feed’ your thinking mind. What do you notice, and what might this mean?

Anja Tanhane

Our Top Ten Tunes

purple flower

Remember that annoying tune you couldn’t get out of your head? It might have been some inane advertising jingle, or a pop hit from the 80s you thought you’d outgrown long ago. Even if the tune was a little loftier, there are only so many times we want to hear the ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th before we get tired of it!

Sometimes our thoughts can be just like those tunes – they get caught on some repetitive loop which can range from being slightly irritating to becoming so obsessive they seriously interfere with our lives. Continue reading “Our Top Ten Tunes” »

Thoughts are not the enemy

Gum leaves

 ‘Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.’

Segal, Williams and Teasdale



A young woman dressed in a white outfit sits cross-legged, on grass or near water, a calm expression on her face. We imagine she has cleared her mind of thoughts, and is resting somewhere between bliss and enlightenment. If you google ‘meditation’ on google images, this is the photo which will come up for most of the first page. It is one of the most enduring images of meditation in our culture, and it is misleading. First of all, she is not sitting in a good meditation posture. Her legs are crossed, but her knees are up in the air, and anyone who has tried to sit in this position for more than two minutes quickly finds it is very uncomfortable on the back. That’s why experienced meditators usually sit on a firm meditation cushion, or use a chair or meditation bench.

The other misconception is that meditation is about clearing your mind of thoughts. Over many years of running mindfulness workshops, I have heard this again and again,

‘I tried meditation ten years ago. I sat down on the bed and tried to clear my thoughts but couldn’t do it. Obviously meditation is not for me.’

Even in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, where we emphasis from the first night that meditation is not about trying to stop your thoughts, participants often come back week after week, frustrated they still have thoughts going through their mind. Continue reading “Thoughts are not the enemy” »