Should we label all thoughts as ‘thinking’ in meditation?

A student writes:

If a thought comes up in meditation that provides some kind of resolution or insight, something important to my life in general, should I turn towards this as something helpful or just regard it as “thinking” and come back to the practice? 

Lama Shenpen responds:

I think this question relates to reflection – when and how do we engage in reflection? Often it is when we are sitting quietly on our meditation cushion and thoughts and feelings are coming up, we recognise patterns and insights pop out sometimes as if from nowhere.

Sometimes we worry that we are going to forget them and are tempted to quickly note them down.  To do that would be useful from the reflection point of view but not what we should be doing when we are first developing some kind of Shamata. 

So, I think we just need to be clear that this is not how to relate to thoughts when developing Shamata* and when developing Vipashyana** again it is not what we would do particularly. However, having said that I think it is not as black and white as it seems.

We need shila*** for developing Shamata and vipashyana and often it is insufficient care about our shila in our everyday life that disturbs our mind and makes it difficult to develop shamata and vipashyana. So to actually take time out of a meditation session to reflect on an insight that came to mind, might actually make it easier to create peace in our lives.

So, shila becomes more skilful, especially shila of speech and thinking, so I would say that once you have enough Shamata to be able to sit on the meditation cushion long enough for insights to start to arise – I think it is conducive to further shamata and vipashyana to take time to reflect a bit before ‘returning’ to the breath or space or to the essence of thoughts.

That is what I have always found in terms of my own practice and it seems to have yielded good results so far. I can tell when the reflection has drifted into just following trains of thought without any further insight, I can then quite naturally feel my way back to the simplicity of allowing thoughts and feelings arise and not try to stop them and not get lost in them, and keep looking at the essence as best I can.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

*Shamata – (Skt.) Peaceful or calm abiding meditation
**Vipashyana – (Skt.) Meditation, meaning insight into Truth.
***Shila – variously translated as ‘morality’, ‘ethics’, ‘discipline’ or ‘right conduct’.  The important point about shila is that one enters it by making a commitment.

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