Meditation: Handling Stray Thoughts

Two of the most common comments I’ve heard from people who are beginning meditation is, “I can’t stop stray thoughts!” and “I can’t focus on nothingness”. I’ll write about the latter in another post. In this post, we’ll address the situation of stray thoughts.

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Stray thoughts are usually about unresolved issues, either in the present or from the past.

Those from the present might be about things we need to get done or stuff that we’re concerned about. For example, remembering to pay school fees, renewing a subscription, the pending tasks in planning an event or an upcoming work-related meeting among others.

Thoughts that represent past unresolved issues tend to be about past outcomes manifesting as emotional situations in the present. It would be hard to do justice to that topic here. In a nutshell, we have encountered situations in our past that caused us a certain degree of hurt and we never resolved those situations and thinking back about them still causes emotional strife. In the present, when we encounter similar situations with similar elements, it tends to arouse similar emotions/reactions as in the past. But, this is a topic for another day; it isn’t usually one that can be resolved without a structured therapeutic approach.

Coming back to thoughts that represent ongoing current issues, the key is to keep in mind that these thoughts come from our own inner selves. We’re concerned about completing various tasks and therefore, given the opportunity, we’re reminding ourselves that certain things need to be done.

What should we do about them? The usual reaction to these reminders, is to swiftly cast them aside like intruders in a space where they don’t belong or shooing them away like naughty children overstepping their bounds in child-like zeal.

The usual outcome to this method is that these thoughts do get pushed away for a few moments, after which they return in full force, bombarding our inner space with visuals, questions and more.

We cannot cast ourselves away, which is what these thoughts are – a part of ourselves. Instead, we recognize and accept the validity of these thoughts, after all, if you’re reminding yourself of something, it must be something valid, yes?

And how do we postpone something valid coming from someone sensible? We reason with it, respectfully. We ask ourselves, the following type of questions for every such thought –

  • is it necessary for me to take a decision on this right now?
  • is it alright if I resolve this topic tomorrow morning?

The answer, in most situations is likely to be that the issue in question can wait a while. When each such thought/issue is temporarily resolved in this manner it isn’t likely to return, leaving you in a better, more peaceful state to continue your meditative efforts.

A word of caution: remember the boy who cried wolf? If you regularly postpone your thoughts this way, and don’t address them as and when you promised yourself, this method will stop working. Be true to your word and always do as you said you would.

Another situation with recurring thoughts can be a little more involving such as something someone said to us which we didn’t like and which we’re still feeling negative about. The usual culprit in this case, is a lack of acceptance mixed with a little denial, related to both, ourselves and the other party. These situations are part of a larger personal context and not confined to meditation. This topic too invites a longer answer, which I’ll write about another day.

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