Are You Supposed to Think While Meditating?
When is Thinking During Meditation Okay?
When, if ever, is Thinking During Meditation Okay? What Should You Experience When You Meditate?
Thinking while meditating is not as much of a problem as you might think, as long as you are noticing your thoughts/mind while meditating—regardless of what it is doing.
Are you supposed to think while meditating? Or, stated differently, if you find yourself thinking while meditating, does this mean that you’re meditating incorrectly? No, of course not.
You’re not really in control of your thinking (in the same way that you’re in control of, say, your hand). Sometimes your thinking is explicit and conscious, but most of the time, thinking is spontaneous. In meditation, what’s more important is noticing that thinking is happening (as it happens, whenever it happens). The purpose of meditation is just to become aware of the ways your awareness is always already pre-occupied. The purpose of meditation is to become aware of how your habitual self is always already pre-occupied.
In meditation, it’s common to have some of object of focus to steady your attention. Whenever you notice that your attention is distracted, it’s a “win” because you’ve become aware of how your attention was pre-occupied. In fact, noticing any distraction is a “win”, including feelings. For example, noticing that the feeling described as “frustration” is also an instance of “success”. The point, however, is not to search for patterns of thinking/feeling, but rather to remain focused on your object of choice—the breathing body, perhaps.
As you develop the capacity to remain focused for longer periods of time, you become better able to remain receptive to particular patterns in your habitual, automatic thinking/feeling. As you begin to notice these patterns in your meditation, you become better able to notice these (and other) patterns outside of your formal meditation. Eventually you may become better able to notice your automatic patterns in situations that creates suffering for you—perhaps in the area of your career/finances, relationships, health, et cetera. Notice the impulse to fix whatever “problem” that you notice. Notice your reaction: do you blame others? Is there a repetitive narrative around this issue? Notice all of it; notice every instance of wanting to transcend your existing self—in other words, notice every instance of desiring. Just notice it. All the while returning to your object of focus.
Yoga is not about fixing your inner or outer life. And, ultimately, the focus of yoga is not the specific terms of your inner/outer life. The purpose of yoga is freedom. And in yoga, you realize your freedom as you become aware of how your awareness is always already determined. In yoga, you become aware of how your awareness is determined by forces that are not subject to your will and—simultaneously—that there is something about “you” that is not reducible to any of these forces. (This is explained more comprehensively in our article exploring the purpose of meditation.)
So, are you supposed to think while meditating? The only thing you’re supposed to do during meditation is noticing what is always already happening. And if thinking is happening, so be it.
This article is intended as a short response to a single question that people commonly ask about thinking when meditating. Similar such articles address the questions of how to know whether one is meditating “correctly” and the “best” time to meditate.
Our article on the purpose (and benefits) of meditation offers a more detailed discussion of the role of meditation in classical yoga.