illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
It is sometimes said that if you're too busy to meditate for one hour in the day, you should meditate for two hours… This makes more sense than most people believe: if you're too busy to work on yourself, strong measures are needed to change your life ASAP!
But how many people spend one or two hours meditating each day? Not many and, among these, how many spend any significant amount of time reviewing their thought processes?
Are you a "good practitioner" if you sit one hour but are unconscious and in automatic mode for the other 23 hours in the day? That'd seriously be "clinging to rituals".
Thoughts are not "just thoughts" that you can deem 'unimportant' as long as you don't act on them.
Having thoughts makes having similar thoughts easier. It's similar to how walking repeatedly in the same place ends up creating well-defined tracks, that one then easily follows. It's self-reinforcing. The brain is 'embodying' our mental tendencies, and the more we think a particular way the more easily the same thought comes back. It's how thoughts turn obsessive and compulsive.
Of course, if you act on a thought, you strengthen not only the thought but also the part that 'allowed' it to spill into speech or action… So, in some sense, yes, not acting on an unwholesome thought is certainly better than acting on it. But, just because you didn't act on a thought, you cannot consider that it was "just a thought" and nothing needs to be done.
You have to review what led to the arising of such a thought. You'll probably find a stimulus… but you'll also find old views, past hurt, caricatural pattern-matching, and maybe even unconscious desires waiting for opportunities to spring out (as soon as there's a suitable 'external' stimulus to blame for the fallback, as soon as they can be disguised by 'rationalisations').
And you can enquire into all this baggage that interferes with the stimulus. You can ask « is this really it, or is there something else behind? » and then again! By doing so, you might find e.g. which thought patterns are outdated and, by merely becoming aware of this, you'll reinforce the control loops, the "alarm bells" that will call for vigilance when you use such a pattern: you'll implicitly create safeguards, i.e. you'll "guard your senses."
Training alarm bells (so that we give ourselves a chance to catch our biases when they're activated) is useful but we can even go further.
We can enquire into what reality demands. So not only we enquire into why we've had a particular thought, but we resolutely explore what other thoughts we could have if only we stepped back, if only we took a few more seconds to perceive the situation, if only we reflected more, if only we listened to our heart more… By doing this, we possibly open new tracks!
The point of new tracks might be twofold.
Firstly, it isn't a bad idea to replace an unwholesome view by a wholesome view… Even in automatic, at least your toolbox of reactions is extended, so you're more likely to react appropriately (this is the very idea that, to become an expert, one fundamentally needs to practice enough hours… to meet enough conditions to build a rich toolbox).
Secondly, it helps to let go of all views! It shows that possibilities exist, and it trains your brain to see them… so it forces the brain to evaluate more of them, which gives you once again a chance to catch the process (when the "I don't know" feeling arises, instead of the delusional certainty that "it's simple") thus an opportunity to reclaim freedom from biases.
So, maybe cut 5 minutes of your meditation per day, and spend 5 minutes to review your thoughts?
For the avoidance of doubt, the review is not about covering as many thoughts as you can, but one thought of this day as deeply as you can. When you think you know how you came about it, keep pushing: « is this really where the analysis stops? I like cheese, that's it? Can I see why? Can I see how I developed this taste? Can I see why I chose to give priority to this preference over another, e.g. for a healthy body? etc. »
Reviewing your thoughts opens possibilities, and this is important not to get stuck (which easily happens if the sole possibility you considered doesn't match reality…).
Photo: US climber Alex Honnold on his ascent of a route called The Shining Path (El Sendero Luminoso) in Mexico, without rope. The sort of activity where getting stuck is a bad option!