Simple Tools for Minding the Mind: What To Do When Thoughts Arise During Meditation

How do we become more aware of and manage our thoughts when we’re trying to meditate or experience a few moments of peace? Here are some simple tips on minding your mind.
Andrea Wachter is a psychotherapist, author, and Insight Timer teacher.
Andrea Wachter is a psychotherapist, author, and Insight Timer teacher.

Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Andrea Wachter draws on her own expertise as well as powerful tools by teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie to answer the question: How should I deal with arising thoughts during meditation? Also, discover some of her guided meditations that help you to stay in the present moment.

Minding The Mind

Oh, the joy of having a human mind. I’ve heard it referred to as many different things: a tireless puppy, a hungry hippo, a drunk monkey, a drunk monkey who just got stung by a bee, a pinball in a pinball machine, and rush hour freeway traffic, just to name a few.

But the mind isn’t all bad. It enables us to learn, teach, create, invent, plan, reminisce, and organize. So why the bad rap? Even when we are anxious and feeling unsafe as a result of our thoughts, it is often those very same thoughts that are actually attempting to keep us safe.

So, given that it’s us and our minds till death do us part, how do we cope with the not-so-fun facets of being a mind owner? You may be quite familiar with some of those: worrying, ruminating, rehashing, obsessing, and catastrophizing.

Now, I may be an Insight Timer teacher, but I am most definitely a student in this “minding the mind” business. One thing I know for sure is that fighting my busy mind, hating it, arguing with it, or wishing it away are not useful tools. So, what is? How do we become more aware of and manage our thoughts when we’re trying to meditate or experience a few moments of peace? How do we quiet the busy mind? How do we have a mind, as opposed to being had by the mind? Well, I’m glad you asked! These are age old questions and it may be questions like these that brought you to Insight Timer in the first place. It’s certainly why I first began seeking spiritual resources. How do we quiet, redirect, or get breaks from our thoughts?

Quieting The Mind When Trying To Meditate

Whether you are new to meditation, or you’ve been practicing for many years, you may have noticed for yourself that fighting with the mind in an attempt to quiet it is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene. It simply doesn’t work. Here are some simple tips on minding your mind. May they serve as helpful tools or friendly reminders when you find your mind having its way with you.

Neutral Awareness

No matter how long we are lost in thought, the second we realize that we have been lost in thought, we are found. There are the thoughts, and the noticer. It’s as simple (and as challenging) as that. Whether you are sitting in mediation, or going about your day, practice noticing your thoughts with neutral awareness. Try releasing any judgment that the thought shouldn’t be there. Judgment is yet another thought. This is about simply and gently noticing the mind at work.

What Was, What If, What Is

Whenever you wake up out of the mind’s trance and catch yourself in thought, see if you can label your past-oriented thoughts as What Was. Label your future-oriented thoughts with a silent What If.  And then bring your attention to What Is (something in present moment reality). Anchoring yourself in the here and now is a highly effective way to quiet the mind, calm the system, and reconnect with presence.

Before reading on you might want to practice staying in the present moment with these popular guided meditations. Explore all of Andrea Wachter’s meditations and talks on Insight Timer.

  1. Three Point Check-In Andrea Wachter 06:44
  2. Anchoring Into Presence Andrea Wachter 08:45
  3. Feeling Safe in this Moment Andrea Wachter 10:04

Channel Changing

Sometimes our thoughts can be pleasant, sometimes neutral, and sometimes downright horror films. When you catch your mind playing a movie, see if you can imagine changing the channel to a different station. It could be the reality station as you tune into what is actually, factually present, or it could be a more uplifting mind movie, like the appreciation channel or the gratitude station as you bring your focus to all the things you appreciate or feel grateful for. Appreciation and gratitude are powerful medicines for distressing thoughts.

Sending Comfort

Oftentimes we disapprove or dislike our busy minds. It’s an easy habit to get into as our thoughts are not always uplifting or pleasant to be around. However, disapproving of our minds is like yelling at a child who is acting out when what they really need is reassurance, comfort, love, or help. Try sending love and comfort to your mind the same way you might soothe a scared child or animal and notice what happens.

Compassionate Dialogues

Another useful tool is having a compassionate dialogue with your mind. It’s like your mind is a child and your wise heart is the parent. And who better to have this dialogue than you who is with your mind 24/7? You can practice compassionate dialogues in writing, internally, or out loud if you have privacy. 

Read more: Recently, best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert shared how she meets fear with a compassionate heart by writing a dialogue of love.

You can also try to get an image of your thoughts and then offer them compassion, the same way you would comfort a child or a beloved pet. You can use compassionate self-soothing statements verbally, or with some compassionate action, or energetically with a healing color or feeling.

These self-soothing connections can be extremely effective in quieting a busy mind. So often, we try to get rid of our thoughts when the simple act of compassion can feel quite soothing to the system.

Come To Your Senses

Another simple tool to use when you notice thoughts, is to bring your full and complete attention to one of your senses. You might bring your attention to what you hear in the moment, what you see in your environment, any surfaces you are touching, or the feeling of your body breathing. Our physical senses provide a constant anchor to help us return to reality. The mind will try to compete for our attention, but we can continually return our focus to the sensation of our choosing.

Read more: Our physical body is how we interface with the rest of reality, the five senses like tethers anchoring us to the moment. Discover the 54321 grounding technique that is useful when emotions and thoughts become too overwhelming.

Dropping Down

The mind likes to time travel, but the body is always here as soon as we realize and return our attention to it. This makes for a readily available anchor back the present moment — dropping down into the physical sensations inside your body. This could be tuning into the life force you feel inside one particular body part, or your body as a whole. Author and spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle recommends tuning into the sensations in the palms of our hands. It sounds so simple, but he says he never tires of it and that every time he draws his attention to the sensation in the palms of his hands, it’s always fresh and new. This is an extremely effective strategy to quiet a busy mind.

Creative Imagery

It can be helpful sometimes to give our thoughts an image. Do they look like busy traffic, bouncing balls, a color, or some type of shape? Or perhaps your thoughts are more like feelings or sensations of pressure in your head. Simply giving your thoughts an image without judgement can help bring the automatic background process into present moment awareness.

Here are some additional ways to use creative imagery:

  • Imagine your thoughts are like pop-up ads on the internal screen of your mind and then picture closing them, like you would click closed a pesky pop-up ad on your computer or device. 
  • Imagine your thoughts as leaves, and picture a gentle breeze blowing them away.
  • Imagine placing each thought into a balloon and either send the balloons up into the sky in your mind’s eye or picture popping each balloon with the tip of your finger. 
  • You might imagine a lotus flower inside your head and picture the petals gently closing, just enough to quiet the mind and give you a sense of calm and relief. 
  • One of my personal favorites is to picture a window or a door opening up around the side, back, or top of your head and allow any unwanted thoughts to air out like you would air out a dusty room. 
  • You might also try picturing your thoughts like birds or butterflies and imagine them flying away. 
  • Imagine your brain is surrounded by soft billowy clouds and allow your mind to take in the softness and surrender to the softness of the clouds. 
  • Imagine a grounding cord going down from the bottom of your spine or the bottom of your feet, all the way into the earth. You can then imagine releasing your thoughts down into the cord and deep into the earth.

Read more: Learn about the effects of visualization for anxiety relief.

Shifting Focus

So often we can get lost in our racing minds or a painful body part. One strategy that can help is to scan through your body and locate a body part that feels calm or neutral. Then shift your attention to that part and notice how that calms your system. The mind may want to pull you back up to thoughts or an uncomfortable body sensation, but you can continually return to a body part that feels pain-free, calm or neutral.

Wondering What’s Next

Another tool from Eckhart Tolle is to try asking yourself, I wonder what my next thought will be? Oftentimes the wondering creates a lovely gap that is otherwise known as peace! This is a wonderful way to begin experiencing moments of no thought.

Questioning Thoughts

If you find that one or more of your thoughts are causing you stress, you might try a simple but extremely powerful process called, The Work.

Author and founder of The Work, Byron Katie gives us four simple questions and what she calls a Turnaround that can literally set people free from their stressful thoughts. Ask yourself: Is my thought true? Can I absolutely know that it’s true? How do I react when I believe that thought? Who would I be without that thought? These questions are then followed by a creative turnaround process. So often, our thoughts pop up automatically, we believe them and have feelings as a result, and we never even stop to question them. This powerful process of inquiry will show you the way.

Read more: In another article, Andrea Wachter shares a personal guide on how to overcome depression.

I will leave you with a quote from Eckhart Tolle. He says,

“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not ‘the thinker.’ The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.”

For more information on Andrea Wachter’s books, courses, meditations, podcasts, and Huffington Post blogs, please visit www.andreawachter.com

Meditation. Free.
Always.