Meditation teachers in the West rarely emphasize thought as a primary object of meditation, even though mindfulness of mental factors is the fourth foundation of mindfulness. There’s a reason for this – from the time we’re young children, many of us are taught to revere thought above all else. When we first come to meditation we may feel as though we’re lost in the rapids of thought, tumbling down a treacherous river with no escape. Initially, establishing awareness at the breath and sensations of the body helps to calm these rapids. But not entirely. The thoughts don’t and won’t stop.
So why not learn to listen to your thoughts like you listen to a good friend? This means bringing your full awareness, with kindness, to your internal dialog. From this perspective, listening practice translates well from hearing external sounds like bird song or passing cars to awareness of the tone and quality of your thoughts, not simply the content. The practice may sound simple, but it takes skill to listen without reacting, judging or getting caught again in those rapids.
We can categorize our thoughts as positive, negative or neutral, just as we can with feelings and sensations. This can help us dis-identify with the specific content of the thought so we can simply observe. Most of us spend a lot of time problem solving, strategizing and planning. Often this activity is necessary and useful. But at other times it diverts us from our present moment experience. Listening to thought can help us to discern when we are using thought to escape and when we are using it wisely.
How often are your thoughts angry, comparing or judgmental? How frequently do you carry on internal dialog with someone who has hurt you or made you angry, but you never verbalize those thoughts skillfully or resolve the conflict? What narratives do you cling to as undisputed truths about yourself or others that narrow your possibilities? As your awareness deepens, you may notice how often your thoughts support the mistaken belief that you are a fixed, separate self, at odds with the outside world. Though listening practice, you may also become aware when compassionate and generous thoughts arise from a sense of interconnection and find opportunities to cultivate more of these. Deep concentration, Samadhi, during meditation practice helps support our insights into interconnection, which we can then bring into our daily lives.
Through listening practice I have discovered that whenever I feel a strong sense of self and other, my thoughts tend toward self-clinging or judgment. When I feel an intuitive sense of interconnection, my mind naturally opens to a more compassionate way of thinking about my life and the world. I am able to listen from the heart and respond with kindness, rather than though old thought patterns that reinforce separation.