Even though I used the term stray thoughts, the truth is that in meditation, any thought that is not the one you are meditating on is a stray thought. It is one of the chief blocks and the hardest to overcome. All meditators, when they sit down and meditate, are bombarded by thoughts from all directions. Thoughts are inseparable from the mind just like heat from fire.
The act of concentration requires you to make a conscious and exerting effort to focus only on the desired thought. The art of meditation is to be able to hold that thought with perfect ease, without any undue exertion, with a sharp and still mind free of dullness and stupor. An adept is able to hold his session of meditation for as long as he wants, whereas an aspirant is able to meditate under favourable circumstances only, such as pleasant surroundings, calm mind, no major stress, good physical health and so forth.
Like the physical world outside, your inner world is interdependent and interconnected. For example, in the outside world, if there is no fuel, your car fails to move; if there is no road, there is nowhere to drive your car; if there is no energy, there is no way to run the fuel refineries; if there are no vehicles, there are no methods to transport the fuel, and so on.
Everything is interdependent. No independent phenomenon exists in the outside material world. However exhaustive you may examine, you will get to the same conclusion. One thing links to another.
This is exactly the case with your inner world of thoughts too. While meditating, if you fail to check the very first thought, be prepared to be bogged down by a thousand more. Let us say that you feel thirsty during meditation. Naturally, you think of water, and from water maybe you think of an instance of buying bottled water, the shop, swiping the credit card.
From a credit card your mind may jump to a host of events. Suddenly, you feel loss of focus, energy and concentration. Had you gotten back to your object of meditation the moment you thought of water, you would have been saved from all the rest.
A Natural Hurdle
The natural state of mind is like the quiet, expansive sea. Thoughts are like waves. They can be tidal at times. Restlessness can be compared to a sea storm. Laziness is like the floating ship that has its engines shut down and is simply moving in the direction of the wind. Just like a sea is not a sea without waves, mind is not mind without thoughts.
A conditioned mind's natural tendency is to engage in thoughts. Anytime you pay attention, you will find yourself in thinking mode. During your meditation, as you become increasingly attentive, getting past restlessness and sluggishness, you are met with the hurdle of thoughts. This is a catch situation. Thoughts cause restlessness and when unchecked, they also make you dull and tired, compromising your meditation.
As you continue to strike a balance between relaxation and exertion during your meditation, you start to gain control over your thought flow. They keep pouring, though. You need not feel bad. This is natural. Thoughts have no intrinsic value or power. In the beginning, as long as you have an awareness, you will have thoughts. Eventually, with great practice, you learn to replace your thoughts with the only thought you are meditating on, even if you are meditating on no thought, on emptiness.
It is quite simple, do not react to any thought, just drop it and get back to your point of meditation. Treat all thoughts with equal indifference. Do not examine or place any importance on any thought. Use mindfulness and alertness to detect the thought at the point of emergence and drop it that very moment.
As you continue to practice your meditation with mindfulness and vigilance, thoughts not only become feeble but almost stop emerging after a certain point. In that supreme quietude, when you continue your meditation with awareness, you inevitably experience transcendental bliss.
- Edited excerpts from 'A Million Thoughts' by Om Swami