A major obstacle to meditation is the tendency of our mind to get stuck in negative thinking. The mind “rehearses” the scenarios that bother us, ultimately because it wants to resolve the problem and to find a way out. Unfortunately, it may get stuck in its track like the needle of the gramophone stuck in a groove, repeating the same track ceaselessly.
People who have survived trauma or suffer from frequent psychological distress are frequently troubled by repetitive intrusive thinking. The mind has been likened to a search engine—you initiate a thought and it gives you other thoughts related to it. But if we keep harboring hateful thoughts—even if we don’t act on them—they may lead to more hate and violence. Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist, has written about how his angry thoughts led to narratives that supported violence against people of color. After his conversion to Buddhism, when asked how people could inflict pain on others and even murder them, he replied, “Practice. When you practice hate and violence, it makes your life so miserable that nothing but homicide followed by suicide seems to make sense. Things like love and compassion and forgiveness and kindness and all the most beautiful aspects of our human experience not only become unfamiliar but repulsive to you.”
Everything we routinely do can be understood as practicing and rehearsing. With this awareness, we learn to use our search engine mindfully and selectively put in our search bar only positive elements. In neuroscience, it is known that neurons that “fire together wire together.” When certain neurons fire together continually, over time the connection becomes stronger between those neurons. The triggering factor may be a thought, a word or sentence, or an action, and then a particular neural pathway is immediately activated, via electrical impulses and then the release of neurotransmitters—a whole chain reaction takes place instantly, just as an often-used trail becomes a well-worn path.
Frequently activated neural pathways may begin to function automatically, manifesting as a habit or a habitual pattern—and this becomes your personality over time. Similarly, for people with PTSD, they only need to hear a sudden sound, see something triggering, or even just think of an unpleasant experience, and immediately a whole cascade of reactions, thoughts, speech, and behaviors ensues. Someone who has been abused may be repulsed by the touch of their lover, or a combat soldier may start to scream exactly as if they were in a warzone. In this way, the trauma doesn’t happen only once; it happens physiologically every time we relive it traumatically with our thoughts. Even when you have a nightmare, your whole body goes through it—neurotransmitters are released.
When you do or say something negatively the first time, you may feel bad about it, but the second time it may already feel less unsettling. You may tell yourself “You’re not worthy,” or you may scream at your spouse, or hit the wall—the first time you do it, it is a shock. But the second time you may feel less bad. And then the behavior may become a habit. Every time you get angry, you punch the wall. It can become uncontrollable. A habit becomes a personality, which then determines the course of your life and destiny.
We have to rehearse in a positive way, so it gets easier to see the positive side of a situation. This relates to how we perceive our reality. The sign or appearance of the object or situation may be exactly the same, but the state of mind determines how we perceive the situation. Through practice, we can train our mind to be in a state of spaciousness: calm, positive, and able to perceive the situation with more clarity, equanimity, and a sense of possibility.
For those of us who tend to be gloomy and in despair easily, compounded with the suffering of the past, our habitual mood makes it even more difficult to handle and transform the situation. Then we really need to have right view and right thinking. We train to be aware of what we are thinking and to breathe with it, relax it, and change it to a more balanced view, recognizing the good conditions that are still available to us. We can remind ourselves, “Smile. Choose to think of it in a positive way.” It is entirely possible to create new, mindful, positive habits. This is certainly possible with the practice of loving speech and deep listening toward ourselves. Positivity and gratitude slowly become a new, mindful habit.
Practice: You Think So?
Upon my request, Thay [Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh] once wrote me a calligraphy that said, “You think so?” Asking this question is a great practice to check in with our perceptions. It helps us reexamine our deeply ingrained views and perceptions, so that we may discover ourselves from different angles and at deeper levels.
In my spiritual life, I have found myself having to yield and release layer after layer of views, perceptions, and attitudes that I once thought were solid and immovable. Letting go of fixed opinions has allowed me to accept myself and be accepted by others; to experience joy, and to be okay with it, and not cling to my suffering.
Practicing self-inquiry with the question, “You think so?” has taught me so much about how I think about suffering. “It’s mine! You don’t understand it. My pain is greater than your pain.” It takes a lot of courage to release and let go of our negativity.
Let’s try this practice. For example, say you have a negative thought toward yourself, such as “That’s awful!” or “That was really dumb what I said.” Breathe, smile, and ask yourself, “You think so?”
Continue to breathe, smile, and listen for a while.
Has anything changed?
You think so?
Adapted from Flowers in the Dark: Reclaiming Your Power to Heal Trauma through Mindfulness by Sister Dang Nghiem © 2021 by Sister Dang Nghiem. Reprinted in arrangement with Parallax Press.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.