Don't Follow Your Thoughts with Meditation

Week Two of the How To Meditate Program

Balance and Meditation
Balance and Meditation. Yuji Sakai / Getty Images

This is week two of the How To Meditate program. Give the skill outlined below a try for one week. Consider it a one-week experiment. Make a commitment to follow these simple steps every day of the week.

What It Is: Your brain’s job is to think, and it does it all the time. You can’t shut it off -- you can’t stop thinking. What you can do, however, is not encourage the thoughts. Think of it this way –- there is a little program running in your brain that is trying to find things for you to think about.

It serves up “teasers” almost every second, like “did I write down that phone message?” If you respond to a teaser, your brain gives you more thoughts about that subject. You’ll have a mental image of your phone message pad, you’ll get a memory of the phone message and you’ll get an assessment of what will happen if you don’t call back. If you respond to any of those thoughts, they will lead to more thoughts, and so on, and so on. Meditation tries to slow (not stop) this cycle.

How It Works: When you do not respond to the teaser thought and return to your focusing activity (like counting your breaths), your brain will let go of that teaser and try something else. Do this often enough, and the teasers will come less and less frequently. That is meditation in a nutshell -– increasing the space between thoughts. This skill will teach you how to move past teasers and keep meditating.

Get Motivated: By increasing the space between your thoughts, you’ll begin to receive the benefits of meditation.

It will increase your health and energy while making you calm. Meditation will also give you more mental discipline, a greater ability to concentrate and focus and make you less distractible. You’ll be able to do what needs to be done without getting caught up in emotions, feelings and other obstacles along the way.

The Steps

  1. Continue With Five Minutes: Keep spending five minutes each day just sitting and focusing. The steps below will help enhance your abilities and solve some problems that might come up.
  2. Be Aware of Teasers: Your intention during meditation is to sit and focus on your breath or the word you have chosen –- nothing else. You are not making plans, thinking about new ideas or worrying. You are only there to sit and focus. Anything else in your head is a “teaser.” You may be teased with great ideas that will save humanity, or with minuscule details about a project. Everything is a teaser. Be aware of teasers during your meditation practice.
  3. Don’t Follow Teasers: The first step in dealing with teasers is to not follow them. Don’t engage with that first kernel of a thought. Don’t get sucked in. Just observe as the teaser begins with a sense of urgency and then fades away after some time. Think of each teaser as an ember: if you blow on it, it will become a fire, but if you leave it alone it will just go out on its own.
  4. Label Teasers: One of the easiest ways to dismiss a teaser is by labeling it. When you notice a teaser or notice yourself getting caught in a train of thought, just label it “teaser” or “drifting,” and come back to your sitting and focusing. Just label it and let it go. The more you think about it, the faster the thought train will move.
  1. Return to Your Focus: Once you find a teaser and label it, just gently return to counting your breaths or repeating a word. Don’t worry if on some days you have a lot of teasers popping up; each meditation session will be different. Just relax and return to your focus.

Commitment: 'I will label my teasers while I sit and focus for at least five minutes every day this week.'

Tips to Help You Along the Way

  • Some people find it helpful to use additional labels for their thoughts. You can label your thoughts “worrying,” “to do,” “memories,” or whatever you find helpful. Don’t spend too much time with your labels, though. Just get back to meditating.
  • Sometimes your thoughts will drift, and you will go down a long path. That’s OK. Don’t worry if you spend your entire session following a thought. Just come back tomorrow and keep going. Sitting is the most important part of meditation. Everything else comes from there.
  • Avoid reading about meditation right now. Your focus needs to be on sitting every day. Once you go through this four weeks of doing that, you can experiment with other techniques and read more in-depth information about meditation. Right now is a time for doing –- for just sitting.
  • Resist the temptation to keep a pad of paper near you to jot down your thoughts. That is just encouraging you to think while meditating. You may get ideas that seem fantastic while you meditate. Just let them go and trust that they will come back when you need them.

While labeling your thoughts, try as hard as you can to focus your mental energy on your breathing and your body. Pay attention to how your body feels in your sitting position. How is your breathing each session? Do things change from session to session? Does your body feel different? Try to focus your mental energy as much as possible on these things. It will help you avoid teasers and stray thoughts.

Here is the whole program. Give each one a solid one-week try, and then come back and do the next one. 

The How To Meditate Program