If we watch the mind and focus on the breath only on the meditation seat, then we have two different lives going on: life on the meditation seat and everyday ordinary life.

Thinking is what we humans do and it’s an important part of life. But it can also lead to tremendous suffering. The stories we tell ourselves and the judgment we render can be debilitating and replace our vitality, joy and happiness, with fear, discouragement or depression. One by-product of the practice is learning to be mindful of thinking – seeing thinking more clearly, thinking more wisely and beneficially.

Stepping back and realising that I am thinking about planning, remembering or my resentments can be quite challenging. Sometimes I am repeating a conversation I had with a friend last week, how I could have more effectively phrased things. The idea of literally stepping back, allows you to not be immersed in the thought, and you are observing the thoughts which you were a part of a moment ago. This clear recognition of thinking is not meant to be a dismissal or denial but simply waking up to the fact that “thinking is happening now”. Instead of getting pulled unwittingly into the stickiness of thinking, ruminating – as often happens, step back and recognise what you are doing. This can at times be met with resistance, I can’t step back, I have to think about this, it’s important.

The skill of recognising thinking when you are doing it is the foundation to go deeper in mindfulness practice. The objective is to frequently pause and ask, “What was I thinking?” About lunch, afternoon plans, or that disturbing news story? What if someone asked you hourly, “What were you just thinking?” Just name the thought mentally. Once a student told the meditation teacher: “I have these repetitive thoughts and I cannot stop thinking”. The teacher asked them to count every time they notice themselves thinking. The student reported, “Wow I came to some high number like 345 times thinking the same thing. After the 346th time I said, this is ridiculous and that broke the compulsion of it.”

It is taking an inventory of what we are thinking. We begin to see how repetitive thoughts are, often with themes. It is instructive to notice the top three things we think about throughout the day. Being familiar with what’s happening on the inside rather than not knowing can be beneficial. The frequent thoughts may be the most important things going on in life. Once we get familiar with our thoughts we begin to notice our attitudes and beliefs about our thinking.

This week I plan to observe my thoughts when I first wake up, they must be important since they surfaced first, and count how many times they arise. I might set my phone beep on the hour, to remind me to mentally note what I am thinking or journal about it. If we can clearly and calmly recognize our thinking, then often the thinking will begin to settle itself. So we can use the awareness to help quiet and settle the thinking mind.