How to Cultivate Mindfulness by Listening to Your Thoughts
Perhaps at some time you have sat quietly by the side of an ocean or river. At first there is one big rush of sound. Listening quietly, you begin to hear a multitude of subtle sounds: the waves hitting the shore, the rushing current of the river.
In that peacefulness and silence of mind you experience precisely what is happening. It is the same when you listen to yourself. At first all you can hear is one “self” or “I,” but slowly this self is revealed as a mass of changing elements, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and images, all illuminated simply by listening, by paying attention.
You remain alert, not allowing yourself to become forgetful. When you develop mindfulness and concentration together, you achieve a balance of mind. As this penetrating awareness develops it reveals many aspects of the world and of who you are. You see with a clear and direct vision that everything, including yourself, is flowing, in flux, in transformation. There is not a single element of your mind or body that is stable. This wisdom comes not from any particular state, but from close observation of your own mind.
Joseph Goldstein gives the following instructions for developing mindfulness by meditating on one’s thoughts:
Meditation on the Mind
To meditate upon thoughts is simply to be aware, as thoughts arise, that the mind is thinking, without getting involved in the content: not going off on a train of association, not analyzing the thought and why it came, but merely to be aware that at the particular moment “thinking” is happening. It is helpful to make a mental note of “thinking, thinking” every time a thought arises; observe the thought without judgement, without reaction to the content, without identifying with it, without taking the thought to be I, or self, or mine. The thought is the thinker. There is no one behind it. The thought is thinking itself. It comes uninvited. You will see that when there is a strong detachment from the thought process, thoughts don’t last long. As soon as you are mindful of a thought, it disappears. Some people may find it helpful to label the thinking process in a more precise way, to note different kinds of thoughts, whether “planning” or “imagining” or “remembering.” This sharpens the focus of attention. Otherwise, the simple note of “thinking, thinking” will serve the purpose. Try to be aware of the thought as soon as it arises, rather than some minutes afterward. When they are noticed with precision and balance they have no power to disturb the mind.
Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind writes: “When you are practicing Zazen meditation do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears that the something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer… Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise but they are just waves from your own mind. Nothing comes from outside your mind… If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called “big mind.”
Just let things happen as they do. Let all images and thoughts and sensations arise and pass away without being bothered, without reacting, without judging, without clinging, without identifying with them. Become one with the big mind, observing carefully, microscopically, all the waves coming and going. This attitude will quickly bring about a state of balance and calm. Don’t let the mind get out of focus. Keep the mind sharply aware, moment to moment, of what is happening, whether the in-out breath, sensations, or thoughts. In each instant be focused on the object with a balanced and relaxed mind.