The famous Thai meditation master, and founder of the practice of Mahasati Insight Meditation, Luangpor Teean, often spoke of the need to develop the ability to “see thought.” In addition to the use of the hand movements as an anchor, this emphasis on “seeing thought” is one of the most important points that differentiated his teaching from that of other insight meditation teachers. In Mahasati practice, “seeing thought” is not the same as knowing that one is thinking. Everybody is already able to know that they are thinking, but without practice, one cannot actually “see thought.” People often struggle to understand the difference. I would like to offer a simile to help explain and clarify this.
Thought can be compared to a room or container that awareness enters. A thought-room comes into being, and awareness immediately goes into it. When awareness is inside the room of a particular thought, its view is limited and defined by that room. Awareness is only able to know the confines of the room that it has entered. There are all sorts of thought-rooms that come into being. There are sad rooms and happy rooms, grieving rooms, worry rooms, workrooms, and daydream rooms. When awareness is in a particular thought-room, that room becomes our reality. Most people spend their entire lives just moving from one room to the next.
From the very beginning, our meditation practice involves awareness recognizing that it has entered a thought-room, and stepping out of it. In the first stages of practice, one cannot prevent awareness from entering these rooms that arise. We may try to tell awareness to stay out of these rooms, but it can’t help itself. It happens so fast that it doesn’t even know that it is doing it. A thought room arises, and awareness immediately and automatically rushes into it. It is automatic because it is the result of eons of conditioning. At some point in our meditation, awareness recognizes that it is in a thought-room, and it steps out to come back to the present moment, and that particular thought room vanishes. This is our basic meditation practice – awareness goes into thought, it eventually notices, and it comes back to the present moment. As our practice progresses, on average, awareness notices sooner and sooner that it has entered a thought-room, so it spends less time in these rooms, but this is still knowing that one is thinking. It is not yet “seeing thought.”
If one perseveres and continues with this practice, one will naturally reach the point where a thought-room arises, and awareness doesn’t enter it at all. Awareness sees the room, but it doesn’t enter the room, and the room immediately vanishes. This is the stage of “seeing thought” – awareness sees the room from the outside without ever entering into it. When this happens it will be very clear to you. Nothing is being suppressed, but there is total equanimity. Whatever mental phenomena are present are seen but they don’t disturb you. This is a very important point. You see for yourself the peace that is attainable based on clear seeing rather than avoidance or suppression. It is also the platform for awakening as you continue your practice. As long as the perspective of awareness is defined by thought, the truth of your life that is beyond thought can’t be perceived.