Beginning meditators are often shocked to realize that they can actually observe and investigate their own mental life. Equally astounding to many is the fact that cognition can go on without them, taking care of this or that business, interpreting and reacting in habitual ways to whatever experience registers in awareness. Seeing more clearly into how the mind functions tends to shatter some of the meditator’s most cherished beliefs about cognition, consciousness, and the nature of self. 

As Tibetan teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche states: 

The stream of thoughts surges through the mind of an ordinary person. Often called “black diffusion,” this state is an unwholesome pattern of dissipation in which there is no knowledge whatsoever about who is thinking, where the thought comes from, and where the thought disappears. One has not even caught the “scent” of awareness; there are only unwholesome thought patterns operating, so that one is mindlessly carried away by one thought after another. That is definitely not the path of liberation! 

Think about your mind for a moment. What is it? How does it function? Does your mind have anything to do with matter? Could you have a mind without a brain? Where exactly is your mind? And what exactly does it do? 

For all of our sophisticated understandings about the ways of the world, we remain almost completely ignorant of how what we call “mind” is generated. Most people know more about how coffee is produced than about how their thoughts are created. Most know more about the firing of their automobile engine’s pistons than the firing of their brain cells’ synapses. People spend more time learning how to reprogram their DVR than learning how to understand their mental habits. If we had any inkling of the problems and suffering that result from our ignorance of and inattention to the workings of our mind, we would immediately drop everything and go on a crash course of intensive meditation. 

Exercises: Mind Games

Following are some specific exercises that can be used to conduct an active investigation into the nature of your mind. Any of these exercises can be used either in conjunction with or independent from a regular course of meditation practice. In my teaching experience, I have found that these meditations and reflections can lead people to profound insights, even if the exercises are done only a few times. 

An important thing to remember when playing the mind games is to be gentle with yourself, and not to judge too harshly what you will observe in your mind. Be assured that your lack of mental control or confusion is a common, species-wide condition. 

A second important point to remember is that these meditation exercises are not about getting rid of our thoughts. This notion is one of the most common mistakes of beginning meditators. There are indeed times when a determined attempt at blocking thoughts can be useful, such as in the development of concentration, but a mind empty of thoughts is not the goal. Not only would it be an unnatural condition, but furthermore, if we could actually get rid of all our thoughts in meditation we would never get to see how our ordinary mind functions. 

One useful way to regard your thinking is to recognize it as a natural occurrence. See if you can view thinking as a pulse similar to your breathing or heartbeat, a vital part of existence—with all of its attendant difficulties—gifted to you by evolution. Then you can begin to explore your mental life as a scientist of the self, applying mindfulness to this amazing natural phenomenon. 

Thought Happens! 

10-minute practice

The first exercise is very simple. Just sit down and close your eyes, and for the next ten minutes make the firm intention not to think a single thought or give rise to a single mental image. You can either try to focus on your breath as a place to put your mind, or just sit there. 

During the ten minutes, notice if any thoughts appear in your mind. If they do, remember that they appeared independent of your conscious will or direction. These thoughts will be your first clue. You have just seen that your thinking can go on without you. After all, you had vowed not to think for ten minutes, and thoughts came anyway. Who was doing the thinking? 

If you did go for a full ten minutes without one thought appearing in your mind, you are a freak of human nature. For most people, thoughts and images will appear many times in a ten-minute period, all by themselves. 

One of the most shocking insights for beginning meditators is this realization that they are not necessarily generating their own mental life. The more one meditates, the deeper this insight penetrates, and the harder it is to find “the thinker.” The more deeply one sees into the cognition process, the more shocking it can become, and also the more liberating. 

The next time you do this exercise, try taking the simple vow—as strange as it may sound—to not think about your thoughts. If a thought arises, be determined not to analyze it or cogitate over it, but simply to notice that a thought has occurred, and then let it go. You might think of each appearance of thought as a “thought event.” Just watch the blips of thought appear and disappear. You are learning to be an observer of your own mind. 

Listen, Do You Want to Know a Secret? 

15–20 minute practice

For this mind game, simply listen to yourself thinking. In mystical writings you may have heard about developing a third eye or wisdom eye. In this exercise you can develop a third ear. And then eavesdrop on yourself. 

For this exercise to be revealing, you should plan to sit for fifteen or twenty minutes at least. After closing your eyes and centering your awareness on the breath, simply turn your hearing toward whatever thoughts arise. Listen to your mind as it monitors the world, worries over your future, judges your success or failures. Listen to your mind talking to itself, always going on about something. 

After you listen for a while, see if you can sharpen the focus of your inner ear, so that you catch the very first hint of a thought or image. Listen for the beginning whispers of thought, or even the initial impulse to think. 

As you begin to catch your thoughts earlier in their creation, see if you can just let them go before they complete themselves. Practice allowing thoughts to occur without identifying them as yours, analyzing or judging them, or believing in their significance. Don’t worry that you might die or completely come apart during this exercise. Remember that you are simply investigating your mind, and that it will quite readily return to “normal” functioning. 

You might also listen for the almost imperceptible whispers of thought that often play through the back recesses of your mind. Can you hear all those thoughts that might have gone on almost beneath consciousness? Thoughts that might have died as minor impulses or instincts? 

The Name Game 

A practice for any duration

The practice of naming or labeling can be very helpful as we examine cognition as well. When we give each thought a simple category—“planning thought,” “judging thought,” “regretting thought”—it helps us to be a neutral observer. The process of labeling relaxes our identification with our thinking, and therefore weakens our habitual reactions. We are actually gaining enough distance from the thought to notice its ancestry and characteristics. Labeling will reveal what kind of thoughts predominate in our minds, and also how those thoughts are related to certain primal motivations or tendencies. 

To begin the practice of labeling, take a few meditation periods, and as thoughts appear in the mind, simply give them a silent mental label, such as “thoughts” or “thinking.” After you become familiar with this technique, you can get more specific with the labels. For instance, you might categorize a thought or group of thoughts as “planning,” “worrying,” or “analyzing.” 

The practice of naming is like becoming a biologist of the mind, classifying the flora and fauna that come into view and noticing how they are related to each other in the ecosystem. You are not specifically looking for anything, but simply noting what occurs and which species predominate. 

Remember, you have permission to be creative in these meditation exercises. They are not sacred rituals. Go ahead and give personal or even funny names to your thought clusters, or find new ways of dividing them into categories. 

Adapted from Being Nature: A Down-to-Earth Guide to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness by Wes “Scoop” Nisker © 2022 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.