Learning to Watch the Mind

Observe Your Thoughts and Free Yourself from Their Control

Estimated reading time: 6 mins

This essay was originally sent through my newsletter – INTERMITTENT INSIGHTS


I was a year in my practice when I had my first glimpse of the transformative power of meditation.

I was late for class. Again.

Sweating, I rode my bike as quickly as I could, parked it, and started running towards the building.

Then I noticed my mind was running too. Drowning me in a stream of stressful thoughts.

“What is the professor going to say?
Is he going to yell and embarrass me?
I hope this won’t affect my grades.
Why do I always leave the house so late!”

As I became aware of these thoughts, I calmed down and stopped running.

At that moment, I realized: “these thoughts are just making me anxious. They are not helping in any way. I’m late, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I have to go to class and live with the consequences.”

Then I got to class and… nothing happened. The professor didn’t say anything.

And that’s when I saw even more clearly: my mind was making me suffer for no reason. All those stories were BS.

This may seem like a silly example, but it shows that by learning to observe your thoughts, you can free yourself from their control.

Meet Your Monkey Mind

Every day, we go through our lives with our monkey-mind flooding us with thoughts:

  • Wishes or desires we should pursue
  • Judgments about ourselves or others
  • Stories about how things or people should be
  • Worries about future imagined scenarios…

We may be tempted to try controlling (or even stopping) them, but that doesn’t work. The more you try to resist thoughts, the stronger they become.

Over time I realized that thoughts are not the problem. They are almost inevitable.

The sun shines, the dog barks and the monkey-mind thinks.

The real issue is that we automatically believe all thoughts.

It’s as if we assume the mind to be an all-knowing entity. In reality, it’s just a monkey making stuff up.

via GIPHY

Don’t get me wrong, thinking can be really valuable if done consciously, especially for problem solving.

What I’m referring to as “The Monkey” is the background chatter that goes on in our minds every moment of our lives.

Somehow, we implicitly assume all the Monkey says to be true. We make it our master, and that’s the beginning of our misery.

The Monkey tends to be reactive, dissatisfied and afraid. It seeks short-term pleasure at the cost of our long-term well-being. This makes it a terrible decision-maker; regularly influenced by biases.

Believing the Monkey makes us slaves of its egotistic fears and desires. Most of the impulsive decisions we later regret are the result of automatically believing our monkey mind.

As thoughts come up, we never stop to wonder… Is this thought actually true, or is it some BS fabricated by my egotistic mind?

We all do this with other people’s thoughts and opinions. Why not with our own?

I’m sure you don’t blindly believe everything people tell you. You investigate, you ask: “Does it make sense? Is there any evidence? Was this person right in the past?” etc..

Yet, the mind has a free-pass through our truth filters, uninvestigated.

Meditation Helps You See The Monkey Clearly

With meditation, you learn to “step back” and watch your mind as a neutral, external observer.

As you witness your thoughts from this new perspective, you’ll stop identifying with them.

Then you’ll see your mind for what it really is, a deranged, irrational monkey. Quickly taken over by emotions, continuously jumping from one thought to another etc…

via GIPHY

With time, it will be clear that identifying with all its thoughts is making you suffer, so you’ll naturally stop believing them. As you do that, you’ll be free from their tyranny.

How to Watch Thoughts as an Observer

If you’ve never done it, it may sound inconceivable to watch your thoughts. We’re so used to identifying with our mind that it’s difficult to imagine that we can “observe” thoughts.

When I started meditating, I never imagined I could watch my thoughts. Luckily, I stumbled on a technique called “labeling”, which opened me the doors to my own mind.

Here’s how it works:

You simply sit down and watch your breath. Every time you notice you got distracted, you “label” (with a gentle whisper in your mind) the thought. Then go back to the breath.

Back then, I labeled my thoughts according to which time they referred to.
My labels were: “past”, “present”, “future”.

There are different varieties of labels you can use, but generally, it’s better to keep it simple. Otherwise, you risk getting lost in thought wondering about which label to use.

This technique helped me realize two important insights:

1. Meditation is Not about Stopping Thoughts

I used to see meditation as a practice to stop thoughts. Naturally, every time I noticed I was thinking I felt like a failure.

With “labeling”, my idea of meditation shifted from “stopping thoughts” (in which I constantly failed), to “noticing thoughts” (which was a lot easier).

I started to see thinking as an opportunity to learn about my mind.

A lot of people quit meditating because they say they “think too much”. Actually, the fact that they notice that they are thinking is a sign that they are watching their mind.

If you are lost in thought, you don’t even know you are thinking, so noticing is a big step forward.

2. Shining Light on the Patterns of Mind Dissolves Them

Through labeling, I realized that my monkey-mind was future-focused. As I watched thoughts, I saw that my mind kept fabricating unlikely worst-case scenarios about the future and making all kinds of plans.

No surprise, all these thoughts were making me anxious and stressed.

The more I observed those worries, the more I realized that they were unreasonable, and that continuing to worry about them was not helpful. I understood that if there was a realistic reason for concern, I’d better consciously make a plan to tackle or prevent the issue. Not just let my mind run loose.

After some time practicing this in sitting meditation, I learned to spot many of those thoughts in day-to-day life and free myself from their control.

A friend of mine, instead, noticed that she kept thinking about some thing she should have done differently in the past. Similarly, she saw that this pattern was putting her in a constant state of guilt and regret. And as she understood that those thoughts were usually not true, she was relieved. Then, instead of feeling guilty about past mistakes, she could rationally observe them and learn from them.

It’s pretty amazing. You don’t need to change anything in yourself.

By simply becoming aware of your negative mind patterns, over time, you’ll automatically drop them. No other effort required.

That’s the magic of awareness.

Eventually, you can Drop Labels, and Just Watch

You might be wondering: “Aren’t labels other thoughts? Is this technique encouraging me to think more?”

Yes. Labels are other thoughts.

But this doesn’t mean that labeling can’t be useful for some people at certain times in their practice.

I see the labeling technique as a bike’s training wheels.

via GIPHY

If you’ve never observed your mind (or rode a bike), it might be difficult to suddenly do it, so you might be tempted to quit.

Labeling supports you as you learn to observe yourself non-judgmentally.

Once you become comfortable doing that, you can drop the labels and merely watch your experience.

You can observe your thoughts and feel the sensations in your body without describing them in words.

Just witness.

Other Tools (If Meditation is Not Your Thing)

1. Freeform journaling

Write, everything that goes through your mind. If you find it difficult, be assured that with a little practice it gets a lot easier, you can even start by writing things like “I don’t know what to write about”. Then, after a few days, go back to re-read them. It’s incredible, but when we think thoughts they sound so obviously true, but once you see them on paper it will be much easier to spot your thinking patterns and the flaws in your thinking.

2. The Work by Byron Katie

This is an amazingly simple system (based on writing) created by Byron Katie to help us inquire into our most painful thoughts. If you want to learn more about it, you can find worksheets and all the information you need for free on The Work’s Official Website. I highly recommend checking out her site and book “Loving What Is

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