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Watching Thoughts: Concentration Practice

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“Thoughts are like traces of birds in heaven.”
– East Side of the Berlin Wall

Have you ever tried to watch yourself think? Not like in a mirror or on a videotape, but as if you weren’t attached to any of the thoughts and didn’t get caught up in them, follow them, or judge them. Have you ever tried to mind your mind?

Watching thoughts can be like looking for traces of birds. Any birdwatcher knows that the first few minutes of observation are fairly mundane because the birds have scattered and are hiding. Only by becoming quiet and non-obtrusive may the birder’s attention be rewarded with glorious feathered creatures in droves. What the meditator has over the birder is that the meditator never suffers for dearth. Thoughts are a dime a dozen.

The trick to becoming non-obtrusive as a “birder of the mind” is to not get stuck in the thoughts. Thoughts can be like fly paper and veritably drag the mind behind them. For instance, you’re sitting quietly and still, meditating, concentrating on a single point. And you’re doing it so well! Oh my, you’ve never done it for so long before – this daily practice thing is really paying off. Why, if you’d told me a week ago that only 15 minutes a day could bring me anything worth having – even a smile – I wouldn’t have believed you. Speaking of smiles, that grocery lady has a nice one. Except that she could use a bit of teeth whitening. Oh gosh, did you forget your appointment with the dentist? Darn, second time! They’ll never let you reschedule again! …See how easy it is, this mind wandering thing? It’s what we do most of the time. It can even begin with what seems like success!

Here is where concentration becomes so vitally important, because the only thing that matters is that when you realize you’re making lists and creating worries you stop and go back to watching the thoughts. Just like birds, they’ll scatter for a moment in the blazing light of that awareness moment. But unlike birds, they don’t learn, don’t remember…and they’ll be back.

As you become accustomed to watching thoughts, simply noting them without resisting or craving their contents, you can imagine they’re like children on a playground. You are like the teacher minding the children at recess. Some of the children are tall, some are short, there are boys and girls, black, white, brown, fat, skinny. Some are mean, others are sweet as pie; some are ornery, others are bored. Some will play jump rope, others tag. Some will tug at your hem demanding your attention. Others will try to sneak away under the fence to play hooky. As the recess minder, though, you are uninterested in their particulars. You are simply there to pay attention and make sure no one strays off.

To begin meditation: Find your comfortable seat with your sitting bones pressing into the surface beneath you and your heart lifting from the strength of your connection to the Earth. You can either sit Japanese style on your knees or with crossed legs in easy pose.

Begin with breath observation. For five breaths simply be breathing, noticing how your body moves to accept the breath and then to let it go.

With your final exhalation, simply let your attention expand. Allow your attention to fall on the contents of your mind. It’s okay if this seems difficult or even preposterous right now. Begin to watch your thoughts, as if they were specks of dust being blown in the wind, or children on a playground. You wouldn’t get caught up in their games or in the swirling of the dust. You’d simply watch, and your watching would create the safe space for the swirling activity. That’s all you’ll do here.

Begin with only five minutes – this can be strenuous. For a list of online mindfulness timers with non-jarring bells, you might check out this website, or just google “meditation timers.”

When your bell rings, take five slow, deep, mindful breaths. Circle your arms up and overhead, opening your eyes and drawing your hands down in front of your heart.

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About Jill Magso