Thoughts are Just Thoughts

March 23, 2014
Recently in one of our sitting groups, we were talking about what we’ve individually found to be a benefit of mindfulness practice as well as what we’ve experienced as obstacles.
One man came in a few minutes late, gently apologized for the interruption, got himself situated on his cushion, and began to weep as he joined in the discussion. He was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude for just being able to show up at all. He shared that mindfulness in general, and meditation specifically allow him to be with the pain of the unexpected loss of a close relationship, his tender heart, his fear, anger and sadness in a way that also allow him to hold himself with a modicum of love and compassion through which he can feel a bit of ease and sometimes even some joy.
At the end of the sitting, he came up to me and said “You know, I just realized that all thoughts are neutral. It’s everything I do with them that cause the problems.” It was a beautiful moment. He experienced the profound insight into the link of pleasant-unpleasant-neutral thoughts and how they condition our emotions and actions. We talked about how in-between the awareness of a given thought and our response, there’s a space. And it’s in that space, often completely unnoticed or traversed in a nanosecond, we have great power and choice.
Sometimes I’m asked “why mindfulness, what’s the benefit?” Simply stated, mindfulness allows us to see what’s what with curiosity and acceptance. It is the practice of uncluttering and tidying up the mind. When we see what’s what, the volume is turned down on reactivity, we develop patience and resilience, and we have more access to our innately clear minds, our kind hearts and our discerning wisdom.
It’s important to recognize that mindfulness is not about becoming a better this or that. It’s about becoming fully aware of whatever is happening, whether we like it or not, whether it’s pleasant or painful, and being at ease even with difficultly. Difficult circumstances do not automatically mean despair or unhappiness. They mean difficult circumstances. Being at ease in the midst of difficulty is not fatalistic, giving up, or sticking one’s head in the sand, but rather it’s the solid rich fertile ground out of which positive change can occur. When we stop being in contention with our circumstances but recognize them as they are, we can make skillful deliberate choices about how to proceed. Mindfulness is the awareness of our direct experience stripped of inference and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening.

Using mindfulness to hone our awareness and sharpen our concentration for the purpose of becoming better at our jobs is fine, but I believe it is not the foundational intention of mindfulness. It is not to become a better soldier, a better teacher, a better grocer, a better nurse, a better politician, a better corporate executive. It is to become kinder, more compassionate and wise, and live a life that accommodates all of the joys and sorrows, the twists and turns that comprise being human without harming ourselves or anyone else. And in the process, we just might become better at our jobs, too.