“Is this a satisfying thought?”
This line caught my attention when reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about “part-time optimism” (since, the writer claimed, full-time hope and cheerfulness are just too hard). What a wonderful question to ask yourself, I thought. What a quintessentially Buddhist question. The article was essentially describing different ways to “dial into” positivity, and while it didn’t go far beyond the usual pop psychology advice, it reminded me of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta (The Relaxation of Thoughts), in which the Buddha offers five different ways to work with unskillful thoughts or signs. These tools can be taken up sequentially, or they can be applied to specific problematic thoughts according to the antidote that will best help us to work with them. The result is not only part- or even full-time optimism, but the establishment of a quiet, concentrated mind.
Appreciating how thorough the Buddha was in both identifying and freeing himself of thoughts that can range from merely pesky to downright harmful, I created an acronym that would help me remember what to do when I got snagged by my own mind. It’s SWITCH: switch, warn, ignore, trace, and chop.
The first technique, switch, entails replacing an unskillful sign with a skillful one. According to the Buddhist definition, an unskillful sign is a thought that falls under the category of the three poisons of greed, anger, or ignorance. We can also think of it more generally as any kind of thought that creates a bump, a crack, a sharp corner in the mind that we can’t see around. It’s an uncomfortable thought, for example, irritating like a piece of hair in our collar. “I’m not good enough.” Or it’s awkward and self-conscious, like a toilet paper tail stuck to the back of our pants. “Wow, why did I do that?” Or it’s downright painful, like glass in our eye. “No one loves me,” or “I hate you.”
Noticing an unwholesome thought rearing its head in our mind, we switch it with a wholesome one, just like a carpenter “might knock out, remove, and extract a coarse peg by means of a fine one,” the sutra says. When we think, “I’m not good enough,” we counter it by saying to ourselves, “I am enough,” or “I’m perfect just as I am.” We don’t stop to wonder why we always think so negatively or try to identify the source of this thought. We simply replace it, like hitting a pool ball with another, sending it careening out of the way and into a pocket, where it’ll be out of sight.
The second tool is to warn ourselves of the danger of this type of unwholesome thought. In the Wall Street Journal article, one person scheduled prompts on his phone like “Is this a satisfying thought?” to stop himself from ruminating. When a thought appears, we should ask ourselves, “Is it helping me? Will it liberate me or will it keep me bound?” Going further, we reflect on the danger of letting a harmful thought run unchecked in our mind. “I hate so-and-so. I’d like to hurt them. I’d like to hurt them like they’ve hurt me. I’ll make them pay…” Thoughts that objectify, divide, instill hatred, encourage revenge, or feed addiction—they’re all candidates for this second tool. Examining the danger of harboring these thoughts, we quietly let them go.
The Buddha offers an unforgettable image for this tool, saying that it’s like suddenly noticing we have the corpse of a snake, or a dog, or a person dangling from our neck. We’d be horrified if this happened, he says. We’d be humiliated (and disgusted!) and would do anything to get rid of this weight. Just so, by warning ourselves of the danger of our thoughts, we remind ourselves that they’re not innocuous. The thought that vilifies or rejects self or other is poisonous. The Buddha’s image isn’t gratuitous. It’s meant to evoke a visceral horror so it will deter us from the type of thoughts we should avoid at all costs.
The third technique after switch and warn is to ignore the unskillful thought. Just as we’d cover our eyes to not see something we don’t want to see, we should forget or ignore our unskillful thoughts and not pay them any attention. But the Buddha isn’t encouraging us to repress or deny our experience. He’s simply saying we shouldn’t give these signs any airtime. “If only,” is a good example of this kind of thought. “If only I’d said/did/had, then…” This is a dead-end thought. What’s done is done, and although it’s certainly helpful to reflect on our actions and their results, berating ourselves or spending time imagining alternatives that are no longer possible doesn’t help us and doesn’t change our actions. The quintessential meditation instruction to “see the thought, let it go, and return to the breath” (or awareness, or our mantra, or koan), is exactly the right tool here. We don’t pretend we’re not feeling what we’re feeling. We don’t avoid taking responsibility for our actions. Rather, we stop feeding the unhelpful thought with our attention.
“Am I not supposed to let go of thoughts?” students sometimes ask when I describe this sequence. “It sounds like I’m talking to myself during meditation.” My answer is that sometimes it takes reasoning, cajoling, and encouraging ourselves so we won’t fall back on familiar patterns of mind. These tools require that we be willing to carefully observe our mind and patiently work with the meditation methods. Wanting to be focused isn’t enough. Telling ourselves to let go isn’t enough. Sometimes we have to use diplomacy or deflection to work with our wily mind. Sometimes we have to be our own cheerleaders, other times tough taskmasters. The most important thing is to watch and respond.
The Buddha’s fourth teaching is to trace the path of the thought to its root. The sutra gives this process a rather technical term: to “still the thought-formation” of these thoughts. The Buddha describes a person who, when walking fast, thinks to themselves, “Why am I walking fast? Why don’t I walk slowly?” Then, walking slowly, they ask themselves, “Why don’t I stand?” “Why don’t I sit?” “Why don’t I lie down?” By substituting a gross posture with a subtler one, they arrive at complete stillness of body and mind. The image that comes up for me is that of diving into the ocean. At the border between water and sky, thunder booms, ships piled high with cargo heave and roll, and seagulls squawk. But the deeper we dive, the darker and calmer the water becomes. There’s life there, but it’s more silent and still. Again, we’re not trying to understand where the unskillful thought comes from—that’s not what tracing means here. It means getting to the still place from where the thought arose, so we can liberate it.
Finally, if the previous four techniques didn’t work, or if the thought has a power and momentum that require more force, then we chop it at the root. The sutra says, “With teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, [a practitioner] should beat down, constrain, and crush mind with mind.” Not what we usually think of when we think of meditation. But at this point, we’re dealing with the type of thought that will not yield to reason or re-direction. It’s the type of thought that requires the Read-Yourself-The-Riot-Act antidote because you cannot afford to mess with it. Like, “I’ll just have one drink.” Or even, “No one loves me,” said one too many times. Enough! You think to yourself, like the bodhisattva Manjushri swinging the sword of wisdom to cut delusion at the root.
Crushing mind with mind is like the ninth-century monk and scholar Shantideva saying in The Way of the Bodhisattva:
Those who seize and crush their anger down
Will find their joy in this and future lives…
Therefore I will utterly destroy
The sustenance of this my enemy,
My foe, whose sole intention is
To bring me injury and sorrow.
It’s a mind that is fierce and undaunted and will not back down, no matter what the stubborn self says.
SWITCH: switch, warn, ignore, trace, and chop an unskillful sign the moment it arises. If we can do this, the Buddha said, we’ll have agency over our thoughts. We’ll sever craving and put an end to suffering. Not an easy task, by any measure. But having a human body and a human mind, we have all the tools we need to awaken. Look at all the options you have, the Buddha was saying in this sutra. Explore just a few of the tools you can use to free your mind. He didn’t say it in these words, but when I read this teaching, I hear him whispering in my ear: Never give up.
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