As a meditation facilitator, words and phrases sometimes fall out of my mouth that for me seem natural, but for a beginning meditator may feel foreign. I recently thought about something that I often (and perhaps too casually) say in the early stages of meditation:
"Let go of the thought and return to the breath"
Such an abstract idea, letting go of thoughts. I mean, what does that even mean?
Let me try to explain by painting a picture. Using food.
When I was little (ok, maybe like last month), I was the worst person to share a swirled pint of ice cream with. I'd find that little caramel or fudge vein and I'd follow it all the way to the bottom in a frenzy, demolishing brownie chunks along the way. And suddenly I'd look up, like fudgy rabid dog, wondering what the heck just happened? The vein sucked me in.
It's sort of the same with our thoughts, if we imagine that each thought is a fudge vein. Some of them, even if they aren't really helpful, are sugary and addictive, and we repeatedly follow them down to the bottom of the pint and wonder why we're not getting different results in our lives (or why our spouse is yelling at us again).
So firstly, let me say that thought is inevitable, in meditation and life. It comes and there's no stopping it. Perhaps you're thinking "yeah, kinda obvious"...but I constantly hear people say "I can't meditate" because they think they're supposed to not have thoughts.
You're a thinker, and that's probably not going to change anytime soon. But what IS changeable is learning how to relate to the thoughts.
It's very common in our conditioned ways of thinking to grip onto certain thoughts super tightly. Sometimes it's because they feel good (i.e. daydreaming) and other times...well, not so good (stress, shame, beating ourselves up, etc). But in many cases, we just don't want to let go!
So in the beginning of learning to meditate, we just start breathing. We work on tuning in, to the sensation, the experience. And thoughts come and we naturally want to grip them and say "SEE? I HAVE A THOUGHT. I'M THE WORST." And that's perfectly natural and ok.
But we don't stay there. We have a task and it is simply to be aware of our breath and practice not getting hung up. We have permission to go back to breathing...(again and again and again).
Stress...we can learn to work with.
You can ALWAYS come back to the breath and over time, learn to observe and recognize which veins to follow and which to let go of. So when we say "Let go of the thought and return to the breath", it's not throwing down each thought, disgusted at our thinking ways. It's not aggressive.
It's not screaming "I don't want you, thought!"
It's gentle and forgiving...and yes, a practice, one you can learn to apply in your day-to-day life.