Watchfulness of thoughts is the practice of catching a thought, perception or feeling, at its first inkling, it its initial reflexive moment. We can practice watchfulness of thoughts at any time. Some formalize this vigilance and watchfulness through meditation techniques or through journaling.
An example of watching thoughts might be to take a moment before cooking dinner, or getting ready to do the dishes. Thoughts rise. Look at them. Observe them.
“I’m tired. Someone else should do the dishes. I did the cooking. There’s no appreciation for what I do around here. I’m just a worker.” Notice the thoughts as they rise.. If I think about them and consent to them, I’ll think about another thought that goes down the same path. Good thoughts seem to enliven me, but depreciative thoughts circle around: more thoughts of anger, depression arises and my thoughts then take on a life of their own.
So, given the above sequence, in order to watch my thoughts I would first notice the initial one: “I’m tired.” If the next one rises, “Some one else should do the dishes,” I’d check that one so that the sequence doesn’t go down a dark trail. The practice of watching thoughts is the first step in giving more control over my thoughts. I don’t have to consent to any of the thoughts. Even the thought “I’m tired” is just a thought. I can simply watch it. The alternative is to get hooked on it and feel more tired than I did before I was aware of the thought. Nothing is enough to free us from the tyranny of thoughts.
Watchfulness of thoughts is the first step in liberation from the cycle and tyranny of thoughts that afflict the body, the mind, or the soul. By watching we gain distance from those thoughts, and from that distance we sense our ability to accept that thought, to reject it, or simply to let it be. It has no power over me. The distance eventually becomes poise, the opposite of compulsion. Watchfulness of thoughts works toward commitment also, since it makes me more ready for thoughts that fit my choices, and more able to notice thoughts that move me away from my resolve. I learn to let it be and am not surprised at what thought rises in my mind. It’s just a thought. The fruit of watchfulness of thoughts is leisure in its literal sense to “let be.”
Meg Funk, OSB, is an award-winning author of spiritual books. She is former prioress of the Sisters of Saint Benedict of Beech Grove, Indiana and a long-time executive director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. This excerpt is from her book, Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life.
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Monks in Our Midst: writings by monks from the 3rd to the 21st centuries.