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Thoughts – the waves on the ocean

Many people have the impression that meditation should be a completely thought-free zone. Perhaps they read somewhere that this is what it should be like, or they were taught this, but in either case they were done a disservice.

It puts you in an impossible situation when you believe that you shouldn’t be thinking when meditating. Then you are sitting, attempting to meditate, while thinking about the fact that you shouldn’t be thinking. So you are thinking anyway – and the ‘thought police’ are on full alert!

It’s exactly like believing that the ocean should never have any waves. Even when it is calm there are usually gently undulating waves moving across it.

Accepting thoughts

Thoughts are exactly like waves on the ocean. One of the most important things is to accept that they are an integral part of meditation. In the same way that your arms and legs are a part of your body, so thoughts are a part of your mind.

However, when you are meditating you do need to know how not to get caught in thoughts, and the technique is exactly the same as a surfer uses. Most of the small waves – the everyday bits and pieces of thoughts – will not be big enough to really disturb you. By allowing your mind to gently focus on your meditation – watching or feeling the breath, or scanning through the sensations of your body, for example – you are like a surfer resting on a surfboard. You will simply ride over the top of the waves of thought.

By just accepting them as they are, you’ll find that you can stay relatively calm and keep your balance. They will come and go like waves, and by coming back to your meditation, you’ll find that they stay most of the time in the background.

Thoughts - the waves on the ocean

I like to let people know that when you experience this you are definitely in a state of meditation, even though there are still thoughts moving through your mind like waves. In fact, in the tradition the first stage of meditation is described as becoming aware of your thoughts. Even when your mind is very busy, the fact that you notice this is a sign that your meditation is working.

The reason is that in our everyday lives our thoughts usually form the undercurrent which runs our lives. And then we don’t really notice them – we just do whatever they dictate. When you are meditating and start to notice them, they are no longer running your life. It’s exactly like being on a surfboard and letting them float by.

The bigger waves

And then there are the times when our thoughts seem to take over. Sometimes we just need to let this happen – just watching the chaos. Even though you might get thrown around a bit you will find that as long as you don’t fight them, or try to get rid of them, they will eventually settle down. One student called this technique ‘a gentle confrontation’ – a description I really like.

As you get used to this, you’ll find that you will eventually be able to ‘dive under’ these big waves – just like a surfer. Like waves, there are always gaps between thoughts, even though they might seem to be continuous.

Because a surfer knows this, she or he is able to see waves before they arrive and can then decide whether to ride them or not. If a wave is not good to ride, they will dive under it, knowing that the ocean under the wave is relatively still.

Meditating is the same. If a thought comes along that is going to disturb the meditation, the technique is to let the thought go into the background and bring your mind back to the meditation object. This allows you to keep calm and ‘dive underneath’ thoughts – you will then see them coming, notice them, and just let them ride over the top without catching you.

Of course, most of the time you will not notice a thought until you are caught in it. This doesn’t really make any difference, because as soon as you notice you are caught in the wave of a thought, you can simply ‘dive under’ it by bringing your focus back to your meditation object. If, however, you find you can’t get out of the thought – just wait. By letting it go and by not fighting it you will find that you will eventually land on ‘the beach’. Like waves, all thoughts end up on the beach. Then you can return to your meditation object.

Finding the beach

Learning to meditate is exactly like learning to swim. We need to know that the ocean exists, its different moods, the waves and currents and where the beach is. No surfer would ever go into the sea without sitting on the beach and watching for quite some time, checking out the waves, the rips, the wind and the currents.

The mind is like the sea in that it has moods, waves, rips and currents. If we don’t take any notice of them we can be swept along by the currents, picked up and buffeted and dumped by the waves.

As with swimming there needs to be a reference point from where we can start, so we need to know that we can get out of the sea and find the beach. On the beach we can learn about the sea and the way to swim. Finding the beach is the foundation of learning to meditate because it is the place where the mind is still and where we are safe.

This is the still point where our bodies, minds and emotions are balanced. It is the key to all meditation and you can get to know what this balance point is like for yourself by learning the basics of meditation well. You can then balance yourself quickly during the day whenever you want. And, when you meditate more formally, rest in its deep, still, vibrant peace.


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