How do we go beyond thinking when meditating? The Buddha gives us five methods to use.
When thoughts of desire, ill-will, fantasies, thoughts of the past or future, fears or worries arise during meditation, we can use these methods. But first we have to notice if these thoughts have arisen. So, from time to time, check to see if they have snuck in. When we first start to meditate, intruding thoughts are usually very loud, so are easy to notice. But as our mind quiets, our intrusive thoughts can become quite subtle. They can run almost continuously just below our awareness. So, from time to time, check to see if this is happening.
The first method to stop these thoughts is substitution. Substitute a meditation object for the thoughts. This may be as simple as returning to the meditation object we were with before the thoughts arose. Or we can choose a meditation object that counteracts the thoughts. If we are having thoughts of anger or ill-will, we can substitute metta meditation. If we are deising something we can focus on its unpleasant aspects. If its a person, intead of focusing on their beauty or handsomeness, we can think about their inner body parts like their intestines or sweat glands or urine. If its food we can think about how it looks once its all churned up in our stomach or transformed into feces. Or we can substitute any meditation object, like the breath or a body scan.
If method one doesn't work, we go on to method two which is looking at the negative consequences of entertaining these thoughts. If we're planning, we can realize how this is taking away from our time to develop our meditation practice. If it's desire for food we can think about possible weight gain or stomach aches or how brief the pleasure is from eating something tasty. If it's desire to buy something we can think about the detriment to our finances or the burden of maintaining it or the fear of it being stolen. If it's worry, we can feel how distressed we feel while worrying and realize how ineffective the act of worry is at solving the situation. And so on.
If method two doesn't work, we attempt to stop the thoughts by ignoring them. It's like closing our eyes or looking away.
If this doesn't work, the fourth method is to calm the mind. If we are able to discern the cause of our thoughts, why they arose at this time, we can try and calm the cause. Or we can just focus on the calmness of our breath or use a mantra of, “calm....calm....calm”.
If none of these methods work, and it's an emergency situation i.e. we're about to yell at someone and thus create bad kamma, then the Buddha tells us to clamp our teeth together and push our tongue against the roof of our mouth and crush the thoughts with our mind. I think it's also very helpful to get away from the other person as quickly as possible. Once out of their presence there is a greater ability to employ one of the first four methods.
Once we have successfully let go of the thoughts, then our mind can come to stillness and eventually to the singleness of the jhana states.
For a guided meditation on entering jhana, listen to the Joy to Jhana audio.
Vitakkasanthana Sutta MN 20: