One of the biggest benefits of meditation is increased awareness of thought. Meditation allows you to see thoughts for what they really are. When you see thoughts clearly, you are less attached to them, which gives life a greater sense of ease. But how significant and consuming are thoughts? How many thoughts do we have daily? And is there even anything wrong in thinking, anyway?
Most of us live in our heads to some degree. Estimations on how many thoughts fire through the brain vary. The higher end predicts we have up to 70,000 thoughts every day. That’s 2,916 every hour. 48 every minute.
Is that number accurate? 70,000 sounds like a lot. There are only so many times you can think about what you’re having for tea or what to watch on Netflix. However, the number skyrockets thanks to the wealth of subconscious thoughts firing through the mind at any given moment. Subconscious thought is so instinctual and deeply ingrained, most of the time we don’t realise it’s the reason we’ve become distracted.
Breaking Down The Different Types Of Thought
Before I begin dissecting the different categories of common thought, it’s important to note that thinking isn’t inherently bad. This is a frequent misconception with meditation — that transcending thinking is an idea goal. But that discounts rational, intellectual thinking which absolutely necessary. Problem solving, planning, analytically weighing up the pros and cons of a situation are all crucial skills of human maturity that fall under the umbrella of “thinking.”
The key is that only a small portion of those 70,000 are deliberate thoughts. That means the rest of the time, your brain is busy thinking without your consent and influencing your emotions.
When referring to meditation and spirituality, you’ll often hear terms such as “detached from thinking,” “not identifying with thought” and so on. In an attempt to clarify what such statements mean, I’ll break down the thought processes I notice within my own inner-world.
Purposeful Intellectual Thought
As mentioned above, this includes problem solving and planning. I wholeheartedly support this rational thinking because you need it to live life as a fully functioning adult. While admirable and necessary, it’s also rare for us to a) take some time out to actively focus our attention on such thought and b) avoid slipping into a daydream state where the problem solving and planning takes control of us.
Let’s say you’re planning a weekend away. Purposeful planning would be putting aside some time to sit down, do some research and weigh up the cost and logistics of different locations. Maybe you’ll scan Airbnb, go incognito on Skyscanner, look at affordable flights and write a list of desired destinations, budgets and so on. Great! This is essential if you want to go on holiday. It ain’t gonna book itself while you sit and meditate on the breath.
However, even this form of well-meaning thinking can cunningly turn into idle, background static in the mind. Example: you’re walking through the isles at Aldi looking for something to eat for dinner, when you realise you’ve spent 10 minutes thinking about where you could go on holiday, and now you’ve strolled passed the cheese section — you want cheese for dinner.
Here, your subconscious has continued to work, and it’s disrupted you at a time that isn’t convenient.
Here’s another area that isn’t intended to be swept up in the “thinking is bad” mindset. I call this purposeful reflection because again, the desire to reflect is deliberate on your part. Reflecting is a valuable process for spiritual and emotional growth. If something bad happens, taking your mind’s eye to that place, looking at how you behaved and what you can learn has immense value. As is the experience of processing events.
Most of us engage in a little purposeful reflection while travelling. Great! This is a healthy, enjoyable process. Like planning, though, sometimes reflection creeps up on us. I often become immersed in a world of events gone by when, wait, what’s that smell?! Shit, I’ve burnt my toast because I was swept up in memories of what I was doing this time last year. Oops.
I can (and I will) write a lot on this topic. Eckhart Tolle’s concept of psychological time was one of the first concepts that really opened my eyes to the extent the mind prevents us from simply being. If I could ask anyone reading this to explore one “spiritual” (I use this term loosely) concept, it’s this.
Psychological time is the understanding the present moment is all that ever exists. The past consists only of memories. The future, our imagination. Therefore, psychological time is a product of the mind, and it isn’t useful (clock time is, though: see fully functioning adult). Being able to mentally flitter back and forth from the an apparent past, present and future, deceives us into feeling like time is a palpable entity.
When time feels like a palpable entity, we identify with it. This is a problem. Anyone who suffers from anxiety will know how vividly the mind can project mental visualisations of a future that appears real. Such futures are almost always worst case scenarios.
It’s not only anxiety sufferers, though. Everyone travels in the mind on a daily basis. Let’s say you’re on your way to work, when a complete stranger physically knocks you out of the way to get the last seat on the carriage. You feel angry and victimised. Suddenly, you realise five minutes have passed and you’ve missed your stop. You’ve been ruminating on the event and you’ve been taken out of the present by the memory of what happened moments before.
In terms of the future, image you have to give a presentation at work in the afternoon. The whole morning, rather than focusing on the tasks you have to do in the hours running up to the presentation, your mental cinema is playing the “must see” premiere of the meeting before it happens. You’ve spent the morning mentally projecting to a perceived future.
Occasionally, we may use our inner voice to motivate ourselves for certain events. “Come on you can do this!” Mostly, though, that inner voice isn’t being so supportive. Us humans are blessed with a negative bias, which means our monkey mind often has bad things to say about our past, our present, and our future.
Ever said something you regret, only to realise you’ve missed the next 30 seconds of conversation because the unhelpful dialogue is telling you that was a stupid thing to say? I’d hazard a guess all of us have at some point.
Tune in to your inner dialogue. It’s there all of the time, but most of us don’t pay much attention to it. When you do pay attention, you’ll realise that is had a profound affect on how you think and feel. Fortunately, we can manage or inner dialogue. Each time you notice your negative inner voice, try reframing with compassion and talking to yourself like you would a friend.
How It All Comes Together
I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg with these forms of thinking — there are many, many more. Suddenly, when you take into account how all of these forms interact, consciously and unconsciously, 70,000 doesn’t seem too much.
Here’s a quick experiment to prove my point. Take a look at the image below:
Bear with me on this one, it’s going somewhere. When looking at the image, what did you think? The chances are you experienced a multitude of thoughts, visualisations and beliefs. Here’s what I thought when I found the image:
“Ah, a traffic light. That’s a nice example to use, it’s pretty indiscriminate. Wait, where is that? Is that the UK? No it’s not. It looks more like the UK than Germany though. Isn’t it weird how in Berlin everyone obeys the green man? Why am I thinking this? Wait is this thought experiment even legitimate? What’s the point? Is anyone going to understand what I’m trying to get at? No, come on Ricky, you can do this (deliberate inner-dialogue, bonus points).”
Then, I had a strong visual image of the green man in Germany (known as the Ampelmännchen) loaded with streams of thought about how patiently waiting (even though there is no traffic within miles) is part of German culture, and how I identify with waiting for the green man in Berlin as a sign of my acceptance of that culture.
All of this might sound a bit silly, but I want to try to illustrate how many thoughts one simple, inoffensive, innocuous image can have. Now, imagine how many thoughts, beliefs and images you have when meeting another living, breathing human being. Yikes!
Understanding and noting the multitude of the thinking mind also highlights why meditation is so important. We’re distracted much more frequently than we may believe. By focusing our attention on the breath and taking a curious, playful approach, we begin to see thoughts more clearly. Consequently, they lose their hold and we can bring our focus to the present.
Try this exercise today: I want you to note every time you’ve been distracted by thought. Then, label those thoughts according to the above categories. Note how many times this happens throughout the course of the day.
I’d love to hear what you discover in the comments. Make them good, you have 70,000 to choose from.