We want to practice mindfulness, and that means being present in this moment, rather than lost in thought. But thoughts invariably come up - so what do we do with them?
Weʻre talking about a fine line here, but how we treat thoughts that appear makes a big difference in our state of mind and our degree of presence in each moment.
If we donʻt do anything with thoughts - a very common way of living, which we had before being aware of mindfulness, and which we slip into when we forget about mindfulness - weʻre often taken over by thinking, and get lost in thought.
The other extreme is to push thoughts away - to forcibly clear our mind when we notice thoughts appearing. Although this can serve to bring us back to the moment, it is counterproductive, because it creates a disturbed state - a conflict - in the mind. Opposing our thoughts tends to make them stronger - almost like setting up an internal argument between thoughts and our intention to be present.
A lighter approach is to let go of thoughts when we become aware of them. “Let go, and come back to this moment”. This is better than forcibly pushing thoughts away, but there still is an element of rejection of the thoughts. A lighter, but still present, conflict happens here: although not rejected, the thoughts are mostly ignored.
But what if we apply awareness to everything, including thoughts? Not pushing them away forcibly, or even lightly, as in when we let go, but just being aware of them? For example, weʻre driving, being mindful / aware / present with the experience of driving, in the moment. A thought appears - maybe something related to what weʻre going to do when we arrive at our destination. Weʻre aware of the thought, then we gently come back to the next moment of driving. (More often than not, this happens automatically as our attention is drawn to the next moment).
This way of dealing with thoughts eliminates the inner conflict. Itʻs almost as if our thinking mechanism needs to be heard! And our awareness allows that to happen! When a thought is heard, it fades away much more quickly, and itʻs much easier to come back to the next moment. Itʻs almost like a child - if you ignore what the child has to say, he / she will say it louder, longer, and more forcefully. If you listen, the child (often) will calm down!
So itʻs about awareness, always. Awareness of action, of perceptions, and of thoughts - and emotions, too.
Not pushing thoughts away or ignoring them, but being aware of them, is the practice of mindfulness in itself, and will strengthen the “mindfulness muscle”, just as being aware of what weʻre doing in the moment will!
And other benefits of mindfulness apply to thoughts, too: being aware of them will give us insights about how our mind is working, where our thoughts are coming from, and that moment of choice to decide whether or not to act on them.
So, letʻs remember: thoughts, actions, emotions, perceptions, whatever - only aware, aware, aware!!