The first three days
I have done a few of these solo retreats now and the pattern remains pretty much the same. For the first three days, the mind appears to be very busy. What is actually happening is that the lack of external stimulus from the solitude makes what mental chatter that there is, appear noisier than back in the busy urban environment. I don’t think that the mind is any busier than normal, it just seems that way because there are no distractions
From the fourth day on, each day brings more calmness and peace of mind. Today was exceptional. I am relaxed, peaceful and calm. There is simply silence with the occasional thought flitting across my mind like a cloud across the sky. Whenever I feel my awareness being pulled away from the present moment, I can gently return to Presence.
In addition to the thoughts, I notice the deeper undercurrents of emotions arising and subsiding. They’re all older ones at they moment, popping up to remind me of my life’s legacy. It’s incredible how deeply rooted some of these are. I don’t think I have ever done a retreat where I haven’t encountered some psychological material that I didn’t know was there. It’s worth it just for that.
A New Meditation
One of the first meditations that I teach new students is called ‘labeling the thoughts’. In this meditation, we attach a label to our thoughts when they arise during the meditation. The label is an abstraction and normally consists of a word that identifies our thoughts such as ‘judging’, ‘resenting’, ‘comparing’, etc.
We use the label as a prompt to return our attention to the breath. This meditation transfers neatly into a daily practice where when we become aware of an unhelpful thought pattern, we label it and return to the breath. This single practice has been life changing for some of my students.
There is a problem with labeling the thoughts however, which is this. If a student has particularly compelling thought patterns that can take them to dark places, the practice tends to unhelpfully reinforce that their minds are out of control. Because this is unhelpful for beginners, I have devised an alternative version. I call it labeling the quality of the thoughts.
In this meditation, the labels we use have less emotional significance, even if the mind is heavily compelled to heavy and dark thought patterns.
Labeling the quality of the thoughts
Focus your attention on your breath. Wait for a thought to arise. When a thought arises, label it depending on how persistent it is. I use these categories but you can obviously use your own: fleeting, wandering, persisting, repeating.
Fleeting thoughts are the momentary images and words that pop into our minds unbidden. We can notice these during long or deep meditations if we have a busy mind as a bubbling cauldron of thoughts, competing for our attention and some of which we become conscious of.
Wandering is, of course, mind wandering and we only notice it once our minds have made many associations and wandered, often far away, from the original thoughts.
Persistent thoughts are the thoughts that hang around in our heads and refuse to leave a bit like the music that often plays in a seemingly endless loop in our heads.
Repetitive thoughts are those thoughts that return to our mind over and over again no matter how many times we put them to bed.
For me this pretty much covers everything but feel free to use your own labels.
This practice offers a different way of observing our thoughts and using them as a prompt for Presence that the ‘monkey mind’ will find more difficult to use against us.
If you’d like some instruction in meditation practices come along to one of our drop-in classes or book onto a course. Take a look around the site to find what’s most useful to you.