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Freeing Yourself From Thoughts; Freeing Thoughts From Yourself

April 23, 2013

Calling the play-by-play

The motto of this blog is “just sit!” This motto corresponds to a traditional definition of meditation: “Sitting simply, without elaboration.” But often, when we try to “just sit”, we notice that we are not, in fact, “sitting simply, without elaboration.”  On the contrary, we notice that our conceptual mind is elaborating like crazy, broadcasting play-by-play commentaries, postulating revisionist histories, and projecting best and worst-case scenarios.

This florid process of conceptual elaboration may feel overwhelming and out of control.  It seems as if we are captured by our thoughts, like a field mouse snatched up by falcon. One second we are sitting simply on the ground, and the next second we are in the talons of a powerful thought, rushing through the air.

kestrel and mouse

Captured by a raptor

Especially if our thoughts are painful, we might conclude they are our enemies. If only we could get rid of the pesky conceptual mind, we could be free of suffering! But thinking is a natural function of mind; thoughts arise naturally and effortlessly. So the desire to stop thoughts is an aggressive one; it represents the wish for things to be other than as they naturally are. Any kind of aggression sows the seeds of greater dissatisfaction and suffering.

It is through expectation and doubt, attachment and aversion that our minds create samsara; it is not concepts or values, but the way we react to them.

Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche 

Since thoughts naturally arise, rather than trying to eradicate them, we can learn to improve our relationship with them.  Rather than trying to be free from thought entirely, we can develop freedom in the presence of any thought. In order to do this, we must become familiar with our relationship to thought. We can do this by taking the process of thinking as our object of meditation.

Bicyclist

Can you tell when you’re pedaling?

Instruction: Take your meditation posture, and settle your mind.  (You may use an object of meditation such as the breath to help you settle.)  When your mind is as settled (or at least as settled as it is likely to get), place your awareness on your thoughts.  Allow thoughts to arise spontaneously; don’t try to suppress any thought that’s arising, but don’t entertain any thought, either.  Just leave your mind open and see what thoughts arise. Let your attitude be curious, friendly, and undemanding. Who are your guests today?  When a thought arises, notice how much effort you are putting into thinking that thought or how much effort you’re putting into not thinking that thought. Notice when you are actively suppressing a thought, and when you have hopped on a thought and are pedaling it as if it were a bicycle. See if you can let go of any effort, and just allow thoughts to arise, linger, and depart without doing anything to them.

You might notice that some thoughts arise with no effort at all.  For instance, you might suddenly be visited by an image of a childhood home, by a musical phrase, or a quote. These thoughts might suddenly appear and disappear, like clouds forming and dissolving over a mountain peak. You might find that you can witness these thoughts just as they are without playing with them.  But you might notice that there are other thoughts that you cannot leave alone — fascinating thoughts; important thoughts; emotionally evocative thoughts; frightening thoughts. When these thoughts arise, you pounce on them and begin playing with them  without even noticing it – exploring the fascinating thoughts; taking notes on the important thoughts; luxuriating in the emotionally evocative thoughts; doing battle with the frightening thoughts.

When we do this kind of practice, we can notice that we have made a choice to become actively involved in the thinking process. If we don’t keep on thinking the thoughts, they will naturally fade away. But when we become actively involved in thinking, we perpetuate and manipulate the thoughts. It’s not that thoughts have captured us and won’t let go, it’s that we’ve captured our thoughts and won’t let go.  We’re not the poor field mouse; we’re the predatory falcon.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche writes about this uncomfortable dynamic between ourselves and our thoughts:

Elegant, perhaps, but is he comfortable

In a way our thoughts are imprisoning us. On the other hand, we are imprisoning them. We imprison our thoughts in the same way they imprison us. We’re not letting thought be thought. We’re not letting these thoughts be thoughts in their own state. We are coloring them. We are clothing them. We’re painting the face of our thoughts. We’re putting hats and boots on them.

That’s very uncomfortable for the thoughts. We may not recognize it, but if you really look at the thoughts themselves, it’s very uncomfortable for them to be what we want them to be. It’s like dressing up a monkey in the circus. The monkey is all dressed up in a beautiful tuxedo and bow tie, with a dignified hat and beautiful shiny boots. But you can imagine the discomfort the monkey feels at that point. No matter how beautiful he may look, no matter how dignified this monkey may appear to be, from the point of view of the monkey’s basic instinct, it’s uncomfortable to put up with all the expectations of your human boss.

 Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Spring 2005. 

 Thoughts are impermanent. They will arise, abide and cease if we let them.  But if we choose, consciously or unconsciously, to interact with them, we will grant them more energy and perpetuate them. We will manipulate them into being what we think they should be – fascinating, important, emotionally weighty, or frightening.

It’s important that we understand this dynamic.  When we do not understand this dynamic, we might experience ourselves as victims of our thoughts.  If we do understand it, we have the possibility of working with our thoughts skillfully.  We can learn to recognize those thoughts that are likely to be helpful to ourselves and to others; we can give  those thoughts our energy and care. We can also recognize those thoughts that are not likely to be helpful to ourselves and to others; we can withhold our energy from those thoughts.  This is the basis of wisdom and psychological maturity.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 19, 2013 12:05 am

    Great Blog about meditation . thank you very much

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