We often talk about the effect of so much media distracting our ability to think, but even in the 16th century, people were still troubled by incessant thoughts. In Chapter 11 of The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author calls for us to investigate the nature of our thoughts. He writes:
I warn you that a person who fails in vigilance and control of his thoughts, even though they are not sinful in their first movements, will eventually grow careless about small sins.
Although our thoughts today can often stem from interactions or instant messages from around the globe, some of those thoughts are reactions to what we see around us. For example, we might be watching a movie, but our thoughts are sometimes bouncing between the plot itself and our feelings about the actor’s ability.
Some former social media influencers recall living their lives thinking about their next post and subsequent hashtag to grow their following. Even when we look at something beautiful such as a sunrise or sunset, we comment about its beauty and perhaps compare it to others we’ve seen before.
The anonymous author doesn’t say, though, when we should investigate our thoughts, particularly since he says in other chapters that as soon as a thought arises, we beat it with our sacred word into the cloud of forgetting. However, modern practices tell us to be curious about our thoughts during the meditation itself.
Some meditation instructors such as Tara Brach tell us to welcome each thought—good or bad—and accept it without attaching too much significance to it. This might keep us in a continual state of judging our thoughts to the point that we might never rest.
Other instructors will tell us to acknowledge each thought without grasping it. They compare thoughts to trains coming into a station—you don’t jump onto the train (of thought) that can take you in an undesired direction.
Similarly, other instructors will suggest attending to the thoughts the way you might attend to a movie you’ve seen a million times before—you don’t pay much attention to it, but just watch the stream passively without engaging it. The movie is still playing, but you’re fixed on something beyond the screen.
These mental games can be challenging and might pull us off the meditation cushion. It’s no wonder people might find meditation and prayer difficult. No one said it’s easy, even though it’s relatively simple.
What might be helpful is if we take the author’s advice for examining your thoughts AFTER contemplation. This is an inquiry into how easily your thoughts can steer you off course. This requires a little backtracking, and it, too, can become a practice in itself.
It might be easier if you do this alone without distractions. After taking a deep breath, you sigh out and wait for the next thought to arrive. Once it does, stay with it and wonder where it came from.
Was it something from the immediate environment? Was it something that’s pressing on your current schedule? Was it a physical discomfort or sensation that gave rise to a thought?
Each thought has an origin. Typically it stems from something that has happened recently or something that is continually setting you off. In cognitive psychology, we call this temporary accessibility and chronic accessibility.
Once you become aware of how thoughts arise, you then see how some thoughts might be hijacking your contemplative practice. Is there a thought of guilt? Do you feel uncomfortable about not “doing it right?” Is a particular emotion weighing heavily on you now that colors your practice? Usually, emotions give birth to thoughts.
What the author is particularly concerned about is how our thoughts might lead us to sin. You might consider the last thing you did that resulted in your suffering. It might be something trivial, such as overindulging in food or drink that led you to be sick. Or it could be something more profound, such as cheating on your taxes or your partner.
These actions resulted from a mix of emotion and thought that snowballed because we lacked awareness or discernment. We became careless and impulsive with our thinking, and we didn’t pay careful attention to how our emotions will get into the driver’s seat of our thoughts and subsequent actions.
The more we tend to our thoughts in this time of self-reflection, the more we can get out of impulsive and compulsive behaviors. Then, we spend less time trying to settle our roller coaster of drama while in contemplation. We have less to process and more to rest.
1The Cloud of Unknowing, anonymous author, edited by William Johnston, p. 63.