Observing Thoughts

When I first learned Vipassana at the 10 day Goenka retreat in Dhamma Paphulla in 2016, I was taught to practise watching sensations in the body exactly as it is, not as I want it to be.

  • If the sensations are painful, I watch it.
  • If they are pleasurable, I watch it.
  • If they are neither, I watch it.
  • If I feel heavy or light, I watch it.
  • If I feel a distinct kind of temperature, I watch it.
  • If there is light behind my eyelids, I watch it.
  • If a smell/perfume comes along, I smell it.
  • If a sound/tune comes along, I hear it.
  • If saliva moves around the mouth, I let it move and feel it.
  • If a sense of taste arises, I let it and feel that taste.

The idea was to watch every sensation as it came and to realise that every sensation has only one nature: it arises, does its thing and passes away.

On the surface, this looks very simple. For sure it is possible to watch physical sensations. Sometimes, watching painful sensations is difficult and sometimes watching pleasurable sensations is also difficult. But, by and large watching physical sensations is possible. With practice, our concentration becomes sharp and we get to watch physical sensations up close in all its glory. It’s all quite fascinating really.

But there was one thing I couldn’t “watch” and that was THOUGHT.

Goenkaji says that every thought, be it a memory (past) or idea (present) or plan (future), has associated physical sensations on the body. He says that we should watch those sensations rather than the content of the thoughts themselves.

Much the same way he says that every emotion also has associated physical sensations on the body, and that we should watch those sensations rather than the content of the emotion.

For a long time, I did not understand what it meant. When I asked for clarity from the assistant teacher, he advised me to practise as instructed and that eventually I will get a hang of it. So, I went back and practised as instructed. Everytime a thought showed up, I looked for the physical sensations in the body.

At first, I couldn’t find physical sensations associated with most thoughts in the leg, or abdomen, or chest, or head. However, upon sticking around for a while

  • I could start to notice tightness in the jaw associated with certain thoughts,
  • an increase in breathing rhythm with certain others,
  • a shift in posture with certain others.

But it wasn’t until I watched two other critical “physical sensations” that I was actually able to make progress. Those were:

  • the physical sensation of vision (aka movies of the mind)
  • the physical sensation of sound (aka internal talk)

When we see stuff, sure the eyes capture the light and relay that to the brain and all that. But “what we see” imprints on us as a “physical sensation of vision.” This vision sensation doesn’t always happen because of eyes only. While imagining or guessing possibilities, there is a “vision sensation in the head” that is not caused by the eyes. That’s a physical sensation, albeit caused by the mind.

When we hear stuff, sure the ears capture sound vibrations and relay that to the brain. But “what we hear” imprints on us as a “physical sensation of sound”. Again, the sensation of sound isn’t always triggered by the ears. I am sure you have had experiences of your favourite song playing in full volume in your head, even when its really not playing around you. That’s a physical sensation, albeit caused by the mind.

The key insight here is that physical sensations can be conjured by the mind and it happens all the time. Not just vision or sound, but even body sensations can be caused by the mind. Have you had this feeling that a mosquito is biting you somewhere and when you look, there is no mosquito there or anywhere in the vicinity. During meditation, you will feel so sure that you have pain in certain parts of your body, but if you watch carefully there will be no pain. Some parts of your body might be “feeling wet”, but upon confirmation you will see that there is no water or sweat there. Sometimes you feel (smell) that something is burning, but upon investigation there is nothing burning.

Clearly the mind can “make up” physical sensations.

During meditation, the idea is to watch the physical sensations that create the experience of thought or feeling.

To watch thoughts means to watch the physical sensations that make up the experience of those thoughts, specifically:

  • vision (or images in the head, sometimes you seem to be in those images and sometimes they are in your-first-person-view)
  • sound (or internal talk with varying voices, not always your own voice but of others too)
  • feeling in the body (smell, taste, itch, heat, heaviness, lightness, wetness, dryness, cold etc..)
  • rhythms in the body (breathing, heart beat, other beats and vibrations around your arms, legs, gut, spine, head, neck, jaw etc..)

If you do this a couple of times, you will feel disenchanted with the content of the thought itself and get curious about the sensations that make them up. It will soon become very clear that all of your “thinking” is simply a mental-simulation of the five senses (vision, sound, touch, taste, smell).

During meditation, if you make an effort to break down every thought into its five sense components, you will begin to feel that each of those sense-components arise and pass away without any effort from your side.

All sensations have the same characteristic: they arise and pass away.

It’s only when those sensations “gang up” that we feel them to be more than what they are. We confuse them to be something solid and permanent. When sensations “gang up”, they sort of make babies and multiply, meaning more vision, sound, touch, taste and smell sensations get created. If this multiplication is kept unchecked, the sensations “mob us out” and we get overwhelmed. But when they are broken apart and seen equanimously for what they are, then quickly pass away. Why? It’s just nature. That’s just how they work.

This is exactly what “dissolution” means. To dissolve means to break apart a solid entity into its fundamental components. When you put a solid tablet into water, it dissolves into basic particles and disappears into the water. Much the same way, when you break apart a thought into its basic sensations they disappear into emptiness and vanish.

The key is to equanimously watch individual sensations and not react. If we develop a craving for the vision sensation of the thought, or aversion to the sound sensation of the thought, or disgust with the body sensation of the thought or in some other such way push or pull any or all parts of the physical sensations that make up the thought, then they tend to stick around in the deep subconscious. They will arise randomly another time. But if we simply watch them equanimously, they will stick around for a while and disappear into nothingness, fully.

As you practice meditation, you will notice all kinds of images, sounds, body sensations simply show up for no reason whatsoever. Some of these may actually be memories and some may be non-personal images. They were probably parts of a thought or feeling long ago and a craving or aversion reaction back then would have caused them to stick around in our subconscious. During meditation, they show up unexplained. Just watch them, let them arise, do their thing and pass away. One by one, they will all surface and leave, vanish into nothingness.

The more you do this, you get a taste of anicca and equanimity. You will begin to experience yourself as empty. Much of the sensate-experience simply flows through, without sticking. That’s freedom and total joy!

Happy meditating.







One response to “Observing Thoughts”

  1. […] a previous blog post I wrote about how observing the sensations that make up thoughts actually dissolves them. Once we […]