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Meditation is the Key to Thinking, Not Worrying
How can I stay mindfully “in the present moment” when my survival depends on future choices that require present moment action?
If I only focus on “the present,” such as my morning tea or the dishes I’m washing, or the conversation I’m having, how will I know what to do next, what to prioritize in my day, my life?
That is, how do we stay in the now and still do the thinking, planning, and deciding required to live as a modern human?
Modern life is so busy, busy, busy that oftentimes it’s only during meditation sessions that some of us have the time to actually sit and think. No wonder we feel like we’re meditating wrong. In a sense, we are!
Meditation can be done with intention—such as to focus on a particular issue—but most of the time, when we speak of meditation, we mean that unattached practice of sitting and breathing (according to someone else’s instructions) and observing our thoughts.
So what’s a person to do if a brilliant idea strikes during meditation? Or an important detail remembered? What if these thoughts are relevant to our future survival? Should we stop meditating and go write it down? Maybe. Maybe trust that the idea will resurface “when the time is right?”
These were the thoughts that flooded my morning meditation. And then I realized that in order for me to live a mindful life, I need time not just to meditate and let the thoughts buzz, flow, come and go, but I also need time to sit and think.
Yet, sometimes, all I can do during meditation is think, think, think. I cannot separate from my thoughts. I worry. I rehash. I get stuck. And then I had the brilliant idea (during meditation, of course) that I needed separate time to sit and think. Thinking Time.
“Worry,” some people call this. But to me, “worry” is circular thinking, without purpose or resolution.
Thinking about our problems is not worrying; it’s solving them. Thinking about our problems—critically and with a heavy dose of maitri—is a good way to sort through them, figure out which of our thoughts are helpful, which are not. Thinking about our problems is a good way to play out some possible solutions or approaches.
Are my problems something I can resolve myself or is someone else’s influence a key component (do I have control)? What are my actual options and choices (what I can control)? Are my predicted outcomes to these choices based on fact and reality, or am I projecting, catastrophizing, or being utterly naive and unrealistic?
That’s thinking. Not worrying. And it’s absolutely necessary for resolving our problems.
Worrying would be a mindless deluge of questions, run amuck by fear and anxiety. “What if” comes up a lot during worrying. Or the “if…then” assertions. What if I have a brilliant idea during meditation? If I don’t write it down, then I will forget it for all of eternity and my life will fall apart.
Most of the worrying is based on emotions, unhealthy conditioning, false beliefs, and bad mental habits. It’s not usually helpful, rarely yields viable solutions to problems, and worst of all, worry disguises itself as proper thinking.
That’s precisely why meditation is so helpful and necessary. It allows us to watch our thoughts, whether they are circular and anxiety-ridden or expansive and growth-oriented. Meditation is not a time to follow either thought pattern. It’s just a time to observe what we’re all about at that moment.
After meditation is a good time to jot down any of those brilliant ideas—like my need to schedule “thinking time.”
Thinking time is time to sit with my thoughts, to consider them mindfully and with intention toward resolution or acceptance of my problems. It sounds so simple, but I would not know the difference between healthy, constructive thinking and worrying without my meditation practice.
We all have plenty to worry about and the opportunity to worry comes up all day. No need to schedule “worry time.”
But if I ignore those thoughts except during my meditation practice, I can’t give myself the opportunity to escape my own worry. I can’t give those concerns the space for thinking. Instead, I would just be caught in the loop of worry.
So now I embrace thinking time in the same way I do my meditation practice. And I will rely on my meditation practice to provide insights into when I’ve veered off into Worryland instead of thinking.
I guess I’ve answered my own question: Meditation is what helps us stay in the present moment when the future depends on present-moment choices.
Meditation provides the necessary skill of discernment that can be applied during moments of real thinking, planning, deciding. Meditation will let us know if we are worrying instead of thinking.
At least I think so.