What does it mean to observe your thoughts?

If you’re anything like me, meditation can be a tough activity to approach. Doing and thinking of nothing, how does that even work?

Meditation is the practice concentrating on something subtle that you fade into the stillness in body and mind. Many preach of its health benefits: it calms anxiety and enables emotional regulation, it allows for introspection, and stimulates creativity and productivity. (Side note: meditation is not a yoga-exclusive practice!)

The most common way to meditate is to sit cross legged with straight spine, with hands resting over your knees, and bringing the focus to a regulated and elongated breath. Then, observe your thoughts.

What are thoughts?

Thoughts are activities arising out of signals in our brain, and to a large extent, arise from the subconscious – which goes to say that they are out of our control. For example, you may look at a clock face showing 12pm and think of lunch time, or hear a bicycle bell ring from behind and step to the side. You didn’t choose those thoughts.

Once you recognize this, it’s easy to note that you are not your thoughts, and your thoughts are not you. They are essentially emergent out of the past many years of your experience, and the countless more before that of people who have shaped your social narrative.

What does it mean to observe your thoughts?

If you are not your thoughts, and your thoughts are not you, then you can watch, observe and study them as you would a textbook. In the stillness of meditation, if a thought pops up, acknowledge it and let go of it.

A common analogy is one of clouds. If your thought is a cloud, sit and watch it pass by, without trying to grab at it.

When you simply acknowledge it, rather than entertaining it or ruminating on it, you break the chains of control that your thoughts have over you.

Of course, it is not easy to learn how to do this. When you realize you have gone down the rabbit hole with a thought, the key is to be compassionate with yourself (think Ahimsa!), gently forgive yourself and return the focus back to your breath.

Why observe your thoughts?

Over time, you will start to note patterns in your thoughts that are a result of your past experiences and socialization. Only when you are aware of them can you make conscious decisions to change them and your underlying belief systems, so that you can live more mindfully and intentionally.

How to cope with restlessness?

Many struggle to even observe their thoughts because of restlessness. For example, you might have grown acutely aware of the strand of fringe lying on your face. Try acknowledging the thought, and then letting it go. You might find that you were not restless because of the hair on your face, but because you were thinking about how irritating and ticklish it will be in the near future (or next moments).

Another way to support restless meditators or ease them into the practice is to try a more active form of meditation, such as the walking meditation. During a walking meditation, one brings awareness to the motions of the feet with the floor, something that happens so automatically to most of us.