Thank you everyone for helping clarify a lot of things.
I found another article linked on this forum, and I just have to share the following (lengthy) passage from it because it spoke directly to my issue.
1. Bringing Thoughts to the Pathhttp://www.purifymind.com/ObstaclesPath.htm
There are six types of adversities which need to be brought to the path. The first adversity is thought. Now thoughts continue to arise for us and sometimes they are extremely intense. These intense thoughts can be virtuous or non virtuous; they can be pleasant or unpleasant. In any case, if we follow the thought we become more bewildered, which leads to more fixation, which leads to more problems. If we apply the remedy to the thought, the thought is pacified, which leads to both temporary and ultimate happiness. So when we're meditating with a relaxed mind, whether we are practicing Shamatha or Vipashyana, when thoughts arise and distract us this obstructs our meditative state of stillness, so therefore it can be an obstacle. The remedy to this is how to bring thoughts to the path.
When we are meditating, eventually a thought will arise. It could be a weak thought or an intense thought, it could be a virtuous thought or a negative thought. In any case the situation is the same. It seems necessary to do something about this and there are three things we usually think of that we might do about thought. The first thing is that we need to recognize that the thought has arisen, and once we recognize that the thought is present we need to somehow restrain the thought, in other words get hold of it. Finally we need to apply an antidote, a wisdom that serves as an antidote to that thought. But here, this is not what is done. That is not how we bring thoughts to the path.
Another thing that we think we might have to do is to recognize that a thought has arisen and then examine it, we question the thought, try to see what it is like. Here, revealing the nature of the thought through analysis is also not what is done.
A third thing that may occur to us is that when the thought arises we just acknowledge its having arisen and then let go of it and it will dissolve. That is also not bringing the thought to the path.
Bringing thoughts to the path consists of: When the thought arises, you recognize that it has arisen, but you don't try to stop it or get rid of the thought, nor do you follow the thought. In other words, you don't try to alter the thought or the presence of the thought in your mind in any way. You don't examine or analyze the thought. All you do, is in a relaxed way look directly at it. When you look directly at the thought, the substance of the thought will disappear. But even before the thought has disappeared or dissolved, you will see its nature, which is beyond conceptual apprehension. As soon as you see the nature of the thought, even though the thought is still present, it has become meditation. That is how to bring thoughts to the path.
When you attempt looking at thoughts as a beginner, particularly with intense thoughts, you may find this uncomfortable. It may seem somewhat unnatural to you, but if you continue to apply it, it will eventually become quite natural and be an effective way to enter into meditation even in the midst of thought. Once you are experienced with this, then you will have the habit of, as soon as a thought arises, looking directly at its nature and it will become quite easy.
I tried this advice and found it immediately beneficial.
Shortly after, I was able to see entire thought chains form, then fall apart, instead of immediately trying to crush them. Not the entire session, but for a little
For the first time, I realized that my suffering is not caused by the monkey mind from its own side. Here were the same kinds of thoughts, but without feelings of aversion or helplessness.
That's got me looking deeper whenever frustration comes up, instead of just blaming yet another lapse in concentration.
Second, I had never noticed before but every time I turned back to the object, it was with a subtle sense of aversion. I didn't like the distraction. I didn't like the intrusive and pointless daydreams. This is a definite fuel for the restlessness.
It seems obvious now, and I've read countless times not to be frustrated with distractions, but it's hard not to let aversion creep in after turning back to the breath for the 100th time in one sitting.
I don't know how many times I've read this kind of advice or these kinds of ideas, but it had just never sunk in.
Also, I'm going to my first Goenka retreat at the end of January.
I'm so glad for what the people of DW have taught me and helped me learn. It's very timely.
Especially with this (now obvious) idea that equanimity is important, I feel like I can try what kirtu suggests and be a bit more insistent on training the mind on the object for short periods of time.