So sang Peter Starstedt, back in 1969 (click if you want to be reminded!) Although I’m too young to remember the song at release, it was none the less a frequent enough occurrence on the radio of my youth. The song, in a style described by its Wikipedia article as “faux European waltz tune… with brief bursts of French-style accordion”, is still bringing in significant royalties for Mr Starstedt, decades after its release. The lyrics mention all sorts of things – Marlene Dietrich, Picasso, the Sorbonne, and Napoleon brandy among them. All in all, a somewhat random collection, although there is an underlying theme that roughly tracks through them.1
And that’s the way with our own thoughts, isn’t it? When we’re just gazing into space, or perhaps when we’re meditating, our train of thoughts just noodles along, things popping up more or less at random, but likely with some underlying connection if we poke hard at them. That thought about the dog needing its flea medicine? Perhaps you heard it scratching a few minutes before. Remembering an old school friend? Maybe you saw someone on TV last night about teaching in lockdown, and you know they’d always wanted to be a teacher.
You can do a couple of things with thoughts that occur while you meditate. One is to just try and watch them, without getting caught up in them. This can sometimes be hard to sustain: you notice the first few, and catch yourself before going off with them, and return to the sensations of the breath or the body. But them you find you’ve been off on the “thought train” for the last five minutes, stopping in all sorts of interesting, somewhat random, but vaguely connected, places. So one thing you can do, when you finally spot this, is to investigate the last couple of thoughts, and see where they might have come from. You only need to spend perhaps a minute doing this, but it’s sometimes quite revealing of what’s on your mind.
The other thing I like to do is to categorise my thoughts. I first started doing this when I was on a silent retreat for a few days, so I was spending a number of hours a day in meditation – lots of which was invaded by thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course: it’s just what my meditation was like that day. When I noticed my thinking, I just returned to the feelings of the breath. But thoughts kept coming. And I eventually realised that many of my thoughts needed somehow to “complete” before they would stop recurring, and one way of doing this seemed to be to name them.
So I started noticing that the thoughts fell into different groups. Some were about the past, some about the future, and others were pushing around some problem I was working on. That gave me labels of “past”, “future”, and “analysis”. The ones about the past were either re-runs of particular episodes, or fantasies – more or less improbable – about how my life or some small part of it might have turned out different. So I labelled these “re-runs” and “alternate histories”. Thoughts about the future were more or less improbable, and more or less immediate. Suitable labels included “planning”, “fantasy future”, and “possible future”. Other times I just felt emotions – “sadness”, “happiness”.
In the end, I had about a dozen labels, and I found that most of my thoughts and feelings could be put to bed quickly by simply by noticing, acknowledging them, and labeling. In my case, over those few days, the most-used label was “alternate histories”, iirc, but there’s nothing particular to be read into that: on another day it might just as easily have been something else. The thing to do was simply to notice what they were, and acknowledge them, so they could be put down and I could return to the object of my meditation.
So, next time you meditate, or next time you notice your head is full of thoughts, try this labeling trick. Where do you go to, when you’re alone in your head?
1My favourite Wikipedia fact about this song is that, years after writing it, Sarstedt admitted to a gossip columnist that it had been written about his girlfriend at the time, Anita, whom he later married and then even later, divorced. The columnist noted “Anita is now a dentist in Copenhagen. Peter Sarstedt has spent 40 years singing about wanting to look inside her head. And for most of that time Anita has made a living by looking inside yours.”