A couple of references:
Mindfulness Versus Concentration
from Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
: The initial stages of mental cultivation are especially delicate. Too much emphasis on mindfulness at this point will actually retard the development of concentration. When getting started in meditation, one of the first things you will notice is how incredibly active the mind really is. The Theravada tradition calls this phenomenon 'monkey mind'. The Tibetan tradition likens it to a waterfall of thought. If you emphasize the awareness function at this point, there will be so much to be aware of that concentration will be impossible. Don't get discouraged. This happens to everybody. And there is a simple solution. Put most of your effort into one-pointedness at the beginning. Just keep calling the attention from wandering over and over again. Tough it out. Full instructions on how to do this are in Chapters 7 and 8. A couple of months down the track and you will have developed concentration power. Then you can start pumping you energy into mindfulness. Do not, however, go so far with concentration that you find yourself going into a stupor.
http://www.vipassana.com/meditation/min ... ish_16.php
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- from the vipassana traditions of Mahasi Sayadaw and Chao Khun Bhavanapirama Thera.
In the beginning your mind will often wander during meditation, spinning out thoughts about the past and future. Be assured this is normal; but what should you do when it happens? The strategy is simple: When you catch yourself thinking, silently say the mental note "thinking" for a moment or two, and then gently return your attention to the rising-falling movements (or whatever primary meditation object you were observing).
But after gaining some experience in vipassana practice you may notice thoughts that are very faint or in the "background" of awareness and don't hook your attention. Before you can label them with a mental note, they're already gone. In that case there's no need to label the thoughts. Just keep observing the primary meditation object and ignore the thoughts, which will fall away on their own.
The latter approach is mainly for intermediate and advanced meditators. Since it is more difficult for beginners to notice when they are thinking, there's a greater chance the mind will be hooked by a thought and get carried away on a long tangent before you realize it. Immediately labeling thinking with a mental note helps prevent this.
Don't get upset or judge yourself when the mind wanders away. Keep gently bringing it back to the main meditation object. Be patient with yourself and understand that it's the nature of the mind to think, so training it to stay in the present moment and just know takes time.
Actually, if you are aware the mind has wandered it means you are being mindful. If you didn't have mindfulness, you wouldn't know the mind had drifted away. In daily life we're unaware how distracted and agitated our minds truly are. Only when making an effort to meditate can we see the full extent of the mind's restlessness as it jumps from one thought to the next. The suttas compare it to a monkey in a tree jumping from branch to branch.
When you catch the mind wandering you might be tempted to wonder, "How long have I been thinking? When did I lose track of the rising-falling motions?" But those are more thoughts, and even as you're thinking them more rising-falling movements are passing by unnoticed. Don't go back to find the spot where you lost mindfulness or try to reconstruct the links in the cognitive chain. You can't bring those past moments back in order to acknowledge them. Let them go and start over again from this moment.
One reason the mind easily wanders off on tangents is that we tend to believe wholeheartedly in the content of our thoughts, and so whenever a thought arises we get mesmerized by its "story." We may not think of ourselves as people who are easily fooled, but this is one area in which most of us are completely gullible, especially when the thought carries an emotional charge. When pleasant thoughts appear we get caught up in the fantasies, fueled by desire. When unpleasant memories arise we focus on how we were wronged, getting more and more upset. Whether the content of the thought is pleasant or unpleasant, we tend to assume it has substance instead of recognizing that it's just an empty vibration arising and passing away.
During vipassana practice meditators should try to ignore the content of their thoughts completely. It doesn't matter whether a thought is good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant; the conventional meaning is irrelevant in meditation. The attitude is to look upon all thoughts as general instances of "thinking," without paying attention to the details that differentiate one thought from another. All thoughts (indeed, all objects) have equal value in vipassana practice.
We don't have to feel guilty about having unwholesome thoughts. The key is to be aware of them as soon as they arise. If we're aware of them in the present moment, mindfulness is already there. Everyone has bad thoughts at times. In reality most thoughts arise spontaneously due to causes we cannot directly control. Instead of trying to suppress them during meditation, the right approach is to "know and let go."
Imagine two meditators: the first has many angry thoughts but doesn't get involved in them (or act on them, of course). He notes and lets go of them right away. The second meditator clings to beautiful thoughts about the Buddhist teachings. Which student is practicing vipassana correctly? The first.
When a meditator is aware of a thought early enough, he realizes, "The thought was not in existence before; it appeared just now and disappeared at once. I had previously imagined thought to be permanent because I had not carefully observed it. Now that I have watched it, and seen it disappearing, I know it truly as it is, impermanent" (Mahasi Sayadaw, The Great Discourse on Not-Self, pp. 115—6).
It is important to understand how to observe thinking correctly because, as Mahasi Sayadaw explains, thoughts and tactile sensations—especially sensations of bodily movement—are the most frequent objects of contemplation. Even exalted thoughts about the Buddhist teachings should be let go of, as should painful thoughts.
When no thoughts or other secondary objects distract you, your attention should stay with the primary meditation object.
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