When we sit down for long hours of meditation, we’re inevitably confronted with intrusive thoughts, such as frustration over our inability to focus, regrets about the past, or plain self-hatred. How can we let go of these thoughts in order to break through to transformative meditative experiences? Are there practices we can use to confront and calm our feelings of self-doubt?
In my years of practicing meditation, I’ve learned several ways to quiet my inner monologue. What follows are three different methods for dealing with thoughts, depending on the type of thoughts you’re having and how you’re feeling in the moment.
The first method for letting go of thoughts is using thoughts to counteract thoughts. This approach is useful if you have a very logical mind and need to have a reason to let go of your thoughts . In that case, whenever your mind is preoccupied with thoughts during meditation, consider these questions:
- Did you intentionally cause those thoughts to arise in your mind, or did they appear spontaneously, like an uninvited guest?
- If a thought appeared without your intention, must you claim ownership of it? Do you have to feel responsible for thoughts you didn’t cause to appear?
- If you experienced self-hating thoughts, for instance, did you will them to arise, or did they appear unbidden? If you didn’t choose those thoughts, ask yourself who might have first planted them in your mind in the past. Was that person happy and kind or unhappy and cruel? If the person was unhappy, then don’t those self-hating thoughts say more about the other person’s negative state of mind than about you? Why needlessly suffer by hanging onto thoughts that have little to do with you?
- Can you forgive the person who made negative comments about you in the past? If they were happy with their own life, they wouldn’t have said such hurtful things. Just like you, that person wants to be happy. Can you muster the courage to send them good wishes so that you can release negative thoughts from your past and heal?
We have no control over what confronts us when we step out our door. We don’t blame ourselves when the weather is bad; we didn’t cause the weather and thus don’t feel responsible for it. But when passing thoughts appear in our mind, we often take them personally, as though we were the owner and controller of such thoughts. We’re not. In fact, there is no thinker behind passing thoughts. They merely exist without an owner. Once you see this truth clearly, it becomes easier to allow thoughts to simply pass by.
The second method for letting go of thoughts is using awareness to step outside the mind’s activities. When I first discovered mindfulness, I was delighted to learn that I could unhook my awareness from the tyranny of my thoughts and emotions. As I became aware of what my mind was doing, I could watch its drama from outside without being caught in it. This approach is especially effective when you feel frustrated by an inability to focus.
- When you experience frustration during meditation, let the feeling itself become the object of your mindfulness. Where do you feel the frustration most clearly in your body? Your chest? Neck? Head?
- What is the exact sensation of frustration in your body? Is it muscle tightness? An increase in body temperature? Sweaty palms?
- Allow these bodily sensations to be present in your awareness while observing them calmly. Notice the sensations gradually loosen and change their shape.
- Now focus on your thoughts. What sort of thoughts were born from the bodily sensations of frustration? As the sensations loosen and disappear, do the thoughts also disappear?
- As you become aware of thoughts, notice that the train of thought pauses temporarily. In that moment, you are stepping outside the train and observing thoughts without being caught in them.
- How does it feel to be released from thoughts? Sense the freedom. Can you feel the wide open, empty space of your awareness?
When I first started to meditate many years ago, I often felt frustrated because I had certain expectations. I hoped to have an extraordinary transformative experience although I wasn’t sure exactly what that might look like. After I had been practicing a while, I realized that the purpose of Buddhist meditation was to gain liberating insight through mindful observation.
Extraordinary meditative experiences come and go; they are impermanent like everything else in this world. But in focusing on the arrival of a transformative experience I was subtly resisting what was happening in the moment. After that, my practice became not about anticipating something extraordinary in the future but about enjoying freedom from my thoughts in the present.
The third method for letting go of thoughts is simply realizing that all mental suffering is conceptually constructed. Our thoughts appear to be real, but upon closer examination we can see that they are products of our imagination. Once we have this insight, we will no longer be bothered by thoughts.
- Whenever you feel stressed, worried, or depressed, first notice that you are feeling stressed, worried, or depressed. Become aware of your current state of mind without any judgment. Simply notice it objectively as if you were observing it from afar or watching it on TV.
- Now trace the main cause of your mental suffering. What stories are you telling yourself about the cause of your suffering? What beliefs do you have about yourself or the world? What past memories have conditioned you to suffer in the present moment? The main causes of mental suffering aren’t external but thoughts from the past, which act as a filter preventing you from accurately seeing present reality.
- Notice the artificial, random, and subjective nature of your thoughts. They are often divisive, petty, and conditional while serving as the main source of your prejudice, fear, and disconnection.
- Notice that you suffer mentally only when there is a thought. Without a thought, there is no suffering.
There is a classic Buddhist teaching about seeing a small piece of rope on the ground and mistaking it for a snake. We become filled with fear, thinking the snake is real, but it is only a mentally constructed image. The same is true of our thoughts. Once we stop giving them so much attention and credibility, they drop away in our awareness. Then it becomes possible to see reality as it truly is.