On Working with Thoughts

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As many of us begin our meditation practice and spiritual journeys, we may start out with an agenda of silencing our thoughts, muting all our inner chatter, if only for a little peace and quiet. Naturally, such an attempt fails, as thoughts are an inevitable product of language and communication skills; indeed, they provide us with key tools that insure our survival, both individually and as a species. Without thoughts, our moment by moment experience would be overwhelming, confusing and impossible to learn from or share with others. And so thoughts are a necessary function of the mind, and its not surprising that they continue to jabber away, creating a distracting stream of content during those moments we've set a side for tranquility. This, of course, can lead to periods of frustration and disappointment for the new practitioner. Yet such a reaction is a needless detour on the path, as eliminating thoughts is not only impossible, its far removed from the goal of spiritual endeavor.

As the Buddha established in numerous talks, meditation is not a process of destroying thoughts, but systematically noting, understanding, and eventually letting go of our unskillful ideations in favor of skillful reflections. Let's consider one example of many, in a teaching called "The Two Kinds of Thoughts" (MN 19): "In my practice I focused on thoughts concerning letting go of sensual pleasures, ill will and self-delusion. I saw that these skillful thoughts did not cause suffering to myself or others, and that they cultivated ease and freedom." Such thoughts, the sutta continued, formed the foundations of the path to liberation, allowing one to clearly discern the causes and conditions of suffering. This teaching was not an aberration in the buddhist canon; throughout the discourses skillful, purposeful thinking (vitakka vicara in pali) is listed as the key to establishing the profound states of concentration—the jhanas—that fully develops inner peace.

The key to working with thoughts is not seeking their expulsion, but rather in establishing a perceptual distance from which to regard our cognitions, so that we can choose which thoughts are worthy of additional attention and investigation, and which are best to note from a safe remove. The process is akin to greeting guests as they arrive at a party we're throwing: some guests are old friends that have treated us well in the past, which we may greet warmly and usher inside; other arrivals may be uninvited, perhaps even irritating, but the solution is not to bar their admission, for they'll create more havoc trying to gain admission. Resistance breeds persistence as the saying goes. Rather, if we greet them with the same courtesy as invited guests (skillful, peaceful thoughts of kindness and compassion), and return to our duty as hosts, we'll find their presence far less distracting. And so it goes with unwanted memories and fears, views and opinions.

We develop this skill by observing thoughts from a vantage that is outside of the thinking process itself, rather than maintaining an up-close-and-personal awareness that results in attention being baited, hooked and trapped inside the content of our thoughts. This is accomplished by resting some of our attention on the sensations of the body—perhaps the breath—which provide a stable anchor or mooring that keeps us present during those storms of the mind—such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, etc—that would blow us hither and yon. Additionally, when the mind stirs up chatter, we start labeling the thoughts with a general note, such as “thinking,” then continuing by categorizing what kind of thought is present (“planning” "fantasy" "memory" etc). This habit provides a sense of distance and prevents identifying with thoughts as "mine." Then we can decide if the type of thought is appropriate for the occasion: for example, planning is fine for times set aside to schedule a weekend, but hardly during a meditative break from the busyness of life. However we proceed, its best to maintain some attention to what is actually happening in the present moment, so its valuable to practice, throughout the day, maintaining mindfulness of the sensations in the body, breath, background sounds, etc.

As this practice continues, we'll find that we learn more and more about the pattern of thoughts. We may note how self-judgment arises after life's inevitable setbacks and rejections, rather than voices of consolation and kindness. Another beneficial result is that we may actually stop believing everything we think, just as we—hopefully—don't believe everything we read. Revolutionary! As we learn to pause and note our beliefs and opinions from the outside, the distancing method provides us with an opportunity to ask: "Is this really true? Is there no other way to perceive these events?" For example, if we're caught up in resentment over a slight or mistreatment, perhaps we might note that rehashing the unfortunate events, over and over, is hardly providing us with relief or comfort, and turn our attention instead to feeling the outrage as it manifests as energy and tightness in the body (ie how does it manifest in the chest, arms, jaw and forehead), rather than reviewing the injustices of life one more time. (Let's face it, if our happiness is dependent on people acting skillfully, we're in for a long, disappointing odyssey in life). Or we may choose to ask if there's more to the story than we're allowing. Or if we've never acted in similar ways in the past. Such alternatives are skillful, as they cultivate a greater degree of serenity, while hardly leaving us vulnerable in the future.

The bedrock of this approach is, again, to greet thoughts without contention or irritation. Even the most secret hope that we'll be free one day of a certain inner voice will hinder the process. For every character in the mind's committee believes its carrying an important message that will help us survive, even if the message is harsh and self-judging. If we have an inner critic that informs us we're less deserving than others, it arises because, at one time in our past, we relied on it for motivation, or to explain the confusing events of childhood. While we may have outgrown these ideas, but that hardly means they'll politely vanish. And so the journey requires that we live with these passengers in the mind, rather than trying to kick them off the bus, as it were.

Each time we greet a thought and return home to the body and present moment with compassion and patience, we're cultivating a bright future for the mind.  It may be a profoundly different way of relating to the mind than we're familiar with, but its a skill that anyone can develop with practice. Eventually we'll find that there's far, far more to live than we ever thought.