In Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we observe thoughts as “events in the field of awareness”(Kindle p 5102).  Observing thoughts in this way is not the same as fighting or trying to push away thoughts. It’s just watching them, letting them be – but at the same time not engaging or elaborating. The end result is that they will likely dissipate, like fluffy little clouds. This can be an effective technique when challenged by unproductive thought patterns and persistent low mood.

But if you’re a believer, mindfulness is not only about techniques; it’s about a way of being. Cultivating a kind of watchful, disengaged awareness isn’t just for special occasions, like when we’re feeling sad or angry; it’s for all our waking hours, regardless of mood or thought content. As Kabat-Zinn puts it:

“Mindfulness is cultivated by paying close attention to your moment-to-moment experience while, as best you can, not getting caught up in your ideas and opinions, likes and dislikes… the constant stream of judging and reacting…” (Kindle, p 1184)

Mindfulness practitioners do talk about being with, or staying with, our thoughts and feelings, observing them but not suppressing them. But to observe is still to keep a distance. Observing requires attentional resources that otherwise would be tapped by other cognitive processes, such as that thing we call “thinking.” Attention is a miser – it doesn’t share. You cannot observe a thought while that thought plays itself out. Observing isn’t watching the unfolding – it is disrupting the unfolding. Observing is the after-thought remembering of a thought-fragment while it is still fresh. Observing detaches the fragment from its trajectory.

This type of detachment can be a problem if you consider ideas, opinions, likes, dislikes, reactions, and judgments as things that can be profitable to get “caught up” in. That they are devalued in the mindfulness world is partly a product of a religious ideology in which suffering and the role of desire in suffering are pivotal. I’ll take up suffering and desire later, but for now I am going to assert that thoughts (ideas, etc) may or may not be worth engaging. And what do I mean by “engaging”?

To observe is not to engage. To engage is a four-step dance: yielding, pulling back, reflecting, and then jumping back in. Part of this dance is to be overpowered and to disappear within the interplay of thoughts and the rest, where distance is not respected and thoughts are not resisted. To engage involves controlled processing alternating with automatic processing. Intention with reaction. Engagement allows deeper processing of thoughts and feelings. Some observation, some reflection, some wallowing in the muck.

(This is all very difficult to discuss without an implied homunculus doing the engaging. It may be impossible to discuss engagement without making it seem like an act of will.)

Of course, engagement is not all. There is also stepping back – disengagement. Disengagement is also a good thing. Often we switch from the stream of thoughts to a moment of stillness. We may hit pause, then replay. Or the flow stops for a moment and we hear the echo what just came before. The echo may be so close in time that it seems like we are concurrently observing thoughts “as they unfold”.

To observe thoughts is not the same as listening to them. Listening is an invitation to continue. To listen is to encourage. Listening is not being a disinterested observer. Listening involves respect. Listening involves giving the benefit of the doubt. Listening means you’re not controlling the conversation, at least, not while you’re in listening mode. After a while, you might decide enough is enough. Or others enter your field of awareness and you start listening to them instead.

Can you speak and listen to yourself speak at exactly the same time? By “listening” I mean making sense of the words, not just hearing the words as sounds. Listening is not a passive process; it is active meaning-making. You have to yield to thoughts to listen to them – you have to surrender to them. This means they may take you places you’d rather not go or which make you feel worse for the wear. Is that so bad? Sometimes, yes. Often, no.