“IGNORE YOUR MIND: Don’t give thoughts a second thought ” http://www.themindfulword.org/2015/ignore-mind-thoughts/

“When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/mindfulness

“We are not interested in engaging in the content of our thoughts; mindfulness of thinking is simply recognizing we are thinking.”  https://sites.google.com/a/audiodharmacourse.org/mindfulness-meditation/week-4-thinking/about-mindfulness-of-thinking

As the above quotes illustrate, one finds little respect for “thoughts” in mindfulness discourse. In fact, pace the ubiquitous assertion that being mindful involves being “nonjudgmental”, the process of thinking and the appearance of thoughts (from fragmented to pretty coherent) is clearly devalued as “just thoughts”.

A few more examples of the lowly status of “thoughts” from Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophic Living (Kindle pages):

“It is remarkable how liberating it feels to be able to see that your thoughts are just thoughts and that they are not‘you’ or “reality”. 1898

“This feeling, this apprehending, is another way of knowing for us, beyond merely thought-based knowing.” 387

Of course, thoughts can cloud our judgment and lead us astray. Of course, thoughts aren’t the whole of us. Of course, thoughts are not the same thing as reality. Of course, thoughts can be wrong. Of course, we can become stuck in a way of thinking. These are not uncommon observations about thoughts. However, Kabat-Zinn appears to think (!) an appreciation of the limitations of thoughts and thinking is rare in the wider society. “In reality” he says, we are:

“…totally unaware of the tyranny of our own thoughts and the self-destructive behaviors they often result in.” 1053

In mindfulness discourse, “awareness” confers privileged access to reality, a special state of being that exists in parallel to thinking, feeling, and sensing. But in the parallel world, thinking has a particularly low status. In fact, “awareness” is often discussed in contrast to thinking, as something that is “beyond merely thought-based knowing” (as in the quote above) whereas developing a basic trust in our emotions and the signals from our bodies are an integral part of mindfulness training. So, even though the parallel world includes thoughts, feelings and sensations, the latter two tend to be regarded more highly than “mere” thoughts.

That thoughts are often wrong doesn’t necessarily make them less valuable in specific cases: even wrong thoughts can start us on a path that leads to something we do value, like insight – about ourselves or maybe a gnarly scientific problem we’ve been trying to understand.

(One does find an occasional nod in mindfulness discourse to the value and necessity of thoughts and thinking, with the insistence that “observing” thoughts does not mean to inhibit them. That is a whole other discussion, which I’ll be taking up later).

I don’t mean to say that all thoughts are equal – only that thoughts and the process of thinking (whether automatic or effortful) have variable value, depending on lots of things. Some thoughts are not useful (unproductive rumination), some are clearly useful (remembering it’s Mom’s birthday) and many are in the gray zone. There is a time to inhibit thoughts, a time to assume the stance of uncommitted observer as thoughts come and go and a time to indulge the interplay of thoughts as they pursue their own mysterious ends.

However, being open to thoughts – whether they just pop up, are part of a loosely managed stream, or are the product of persistent effort and purpose – is part of a scientific worldview. Thoughts are sources of information about the world, just as emotions and the senses are. That doesn’t make them necessarily right, or necessarily welcome at all times.

Practicing non-judgmental awareness, letting go of thoughts and gently redirecting attention to some meditative object is probably good for the heart and the brain (considered physically and metaphorically). The evidence suggests it certainly can be. Aerobic exercise is also good for the heart and brain. But just because exercising 30 minutes a day is good for you doesn’t mean exercising all day long is even better. The same with mindfulness practice: it can be very useful to practice “state regulation” and to assume the non-judgmental stance of an observer, but not necessarily to do so at all times – in other words, as a way of living and being. This is partly a matter of what is possible and partly a matter of what is desirable, about which more later.