One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that you have to stop thinking.

Anyone who’s tried knows how futile this is. The mind can get still and quiet, but this comes through relaxation and patient, gentle effort, not an act of will.

What’s more, one can use thinking skillfully to meditate.

There’s a rich tradition of “reflection” or “recollection” practice within the Buddhist tradition that uses thought to better understand an issue or to cultivate a particular quality.

In Buddhism, there are ten classical topics for formal recollection practice, and scores more for reflection. They range from uplifting themes like the Buddha, kindness, and guardian spirits to more sobering ones like one’s own mortality.

The beauty of the practice is that it can be used with any topic, theme, or question.

Here’s one way to meditate using thought and reflection.

  1. Settle: Take some time to center yourself and let your body be still.
  2. Invite: Bring to mind a single question or succinct topic that you’d like to reflect on. This could be a word or phrase (“patience” or “ease”); a question (“What bothers me about this?”); or even an image representing an issue or quality to contemplate.
  3. Listen: Instead of thinking about the topic, settle back and listen. Allow your heart to be sensitive, receptive. Notice everything that comes through your awareness—thoughts, images, sensations, memories—like ripples moving through a pond.
  4. Remember: If you start drifting, get lost or distracted, simply invite the prompt again. Call up that word, question or image, and then let it move through you, paying attention to whatever happens inside.
  5. Return to silence: When you’re ready to stop, put it all down and come back to the simplicity of being still and quiet. Note anything you’ve learned, new perspectives or connections. Then allow the entire process to wash away like footprints on the sea shore.

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