I often hear it being said that with meditation/mindfulness we observe the thoughts and feelings coming and going but I'm not sure if this is a clear explanation of what occurs because in my experience of practicing for over 6 years I don't think I have ever actually seen a thought arising. What happens with me is that I recognise that my mind is lost in a thought and once I do then the thought ends. This is different to noticing the arising. So I'm following breath, lost in thought, come back to breath, lost in thought etc. I can intentionally say to myself "ok now I'm going to think about ...." And in this way I can observe the process of thinking but unless I do this I don't see how its possible to see a random thought arising. Is this correct? If this is not correct then why in 6 years can I still not do this? The recognition of random thought is always in past tense.
The presence of random thoughts make meditation impersonal, i.e., non / not self. You can realise you have no absolute control over thoughts. The nature of your flickering mind can also help you understand the 3 Characteristics.
When thoughts or other distractions arise (like pain), observe the sensation.
The meeting of the three is contact.
With contact as condition, there is feeling.
What one feels, one perceives.
What one perceives, one thinks about.
What one thinks about, one mentally proliferates.
Most proximate cause for thoughts to arise is perception. But what decides whether it is unwholesome or wholesome is feelings. So see thoughts arise be mindful of feeling and perception. Knowing these only will help you know what you are about to think about. Feelings will decide the wholesome / unwholesome root and perception will refine it with past experiences, memories, mental model to your intended action. Thinking about or thinking and pondering will lead to planning out the action in more detail.
(1) the latent tendency to lust reinforced by being attached to pleasant feelings;
(2) the latent tendency to aversion reinforced by rejecting painful feelings;
(3) the latent tendency to ignorance reinforced by ignoring neutral feelings.
Thinking lead to volitional activity and mental fool (Ahara). Also from feeling, Kamma arises:
... one generates that formation, conditioned by which pleasure and pain arise internally
So once feeling arises you should try to stop this process leading to arising of the unwholesome roots, providing nutriment, arising of Kamma, leading to mental proliferation by being equanimous and noting impermanence. There are 2 paces which you can attack Dependent Origination, that is at ignorance and feeling. Knowing impermanence displaces ignorance and being equanimous stops feeling proliferating to craving and clinging.
If you were unable to stop when the feeling due to contact arises, when the volitional tough arises the respective feeling also arise in the body. This is a place where you can contemplate about moral constraint (Sila). Taking a step further you can constrain your thinking also, by contemplating the sensation it created and being equanimous towards it while seeing its impermanence, and perhaps neutralising one's perception by developing the opposite perception. [Indriya Bhāvanā Sutta] This you can use as a tool to prevent bad kamma (in account of feelings you should lessen unwholesome states and increase wholesome states - Kīta,giri Sutta):
Ananda, with ignorance as condition:
when there is the body, because of bodily volition, pleasure and pain arise internally;
when there is speech, because of verbal volition, pleasure and pain arise internally;
when there is the mind, because of mental volition, pleasure and pain arise internally.
Agitation and peace cannot co-exist. One way to achieve inner peace is Vipassana or insight meditation - a non-sectarian, scientific, results-oriented technique of self-observation and truth realization. Practice of this technique brings experiential understanding of how mind and body interact. Everytime negativity arises in the mind, such as hatred, it triggers unpleasant sensations within the body. Every time the mind generates selfless love, compassion and good will, the entire body is flooded with pleasant sensations. Practice of Vipassana also reveals that mental action precedes every physical and vocal action, determining whether that action will be wholesome or unwholesome. Mind matters most.
So when thoughts arise see that sensation is associated with it, knowing its impermanence thus ensuring it does not proliferate to unwholesome actions or further unwholesome thinking. Once you have realized the distracting thoughts, know the sensation associated with it and seeing its impermanence, finally return to the object of your meditation. In case it is breath meditation then return to the breaths. This is the most effective way to let go of distracting thoughts.
Also see: Sal,āyatana Vibhanga Sutta
I often hear it being said that with meditation/mindfulness we observe the thoughts and feelings coming and going but I'm not sure if this is a clear explanation of what occurs because in my experience of practicing for over 6 years I don't think I have ever actually seen a thought arising.
Yes. To clearly see a thought arising is a very advanced practise because it can really only occur clearly when the mind is strongly established in an empty concentrated mind.
What happens with me is that I recognise that my mind is lost in a thought and once I do then the thought ends.
Yes. This is a very honest & accurate appraisal of your practise.
Is this correct?
Yes. What you posted (in detail) is correct.
When the Buddha listed dhammas in various teachings, he generally did so from less advanced to most advanced. In AN 4.41, the Buddha listed 'knowing thoughts as they arise' after the practise of jhana. Whilst jhana is not necessarily a pre-requisite in all cases, to be perfect at 'knowing all thoughts as they arise' would require the development of jhana.
It is also important to understand that what is called 'cittanupassana' or 'contemplation of mind' is not related to thoughts and occurs when the mind has concentration (such as described in the Anapanasati Sutta, where 'contemplation of mind' is practised together with knowing each in-breath & each out-breath).
In other words, most Buddhists are fooling themselves when they believe they are successfully practising observing the mind. In your case, as I mentioned, your appraisal of your practise is not only honest but also accurate, in that you have the awareness to know you catch the thought after it has arisen rather than as it is arising.
What is a thought? In a Buddhist context thoughts (Citta) and thinking(Cétasika) are not the same. (in context of thought as a noun, thought as in having thought and thinking thoughts)
Since it is important to proceed with knowing the difference, I will give an example I've learnt to clarify this. When you get angry, you can decide not to be angry and calm yourself down. Once the thought of anger came to you(Citta), if there was no way to act, i.e think (Cétasika) you won't be able to stop your anger
Next, citta and cétasika arise bound to one another, stay bound to one another and perish bound to one another. They occur only sequentially and in countless numbers per eye blink.