A thought is a discrete mental event. 

If I’m thinking of a dinosaur, a dinosaur is not in the room with me. It’s a thought. If I’m fantasizing about how I’m going to engage in a conversation tomorrow, I am not having that conversation with the other person. It’s a fantasy. It’s imagination. It’s a thought. If I’m worrying about something that I did in the past, maybe feeling shame and going over and over some mistake I made, I’m not making that mistake. In the present moment, that event is not happening. The content is not real. It’s a thought. 

It’s not to dismiss the reality of things that have occurred. Events happen. They impact us, we feel them, and we learn from them. But if we habitually rehearse them or repeat them or ruminate on them, then we can become entangled in our own mental scenarios and suffer. 

There are many kinds of thoughts. Some of them are useful, and some of them cause a great deal of anguish in our lives. Habitual unwholesome thoughts of anger, revenge, lust, arrogance, and delusion reinforce and create deeper unwholesome grooves in our minds. 

But we also have beautiful thoughts—thoughts of wisdom, understanding, curiosity that leads to learning, compassion, and generosity—that bring forth those beautiful qualities of our hearts and minds into the world. 

Thoughts are not a problem. None of us would want to be thoughtless individuals. None of us would want to lose the capacity to use our minds wisely. But are you using your mind wisely or are you caught in habitual patterns? For most of us, each day, we become caught in habitual patterns, thinking things we wish we weren’t thinking. Other times we’re engaging out of wisdom and compassion, kindness and virtue. 

It’s important to know the quality of our thoughts in order to know if those thoughts are beneficial or harmful. The Buddha said that whatever one frequently thinks and ponders upon will become the inclination of one’s mind. So if we’re frequently thinking and pondering upon unwholesome thoughts, we’re deepening that pattern and creating an inclination of the mind towards obstruction in our spiritual path, rather than opening and spaciousness in the unfolding of our spiritual life. 

It’s helpful to look closely at our thoughts. What kind of thoughts are you thinking? You can notice: Is judging predominant? Is fault-finding predominant? Anger? Rumination? Worry? Obsessive planning? Problem-solving? Trying to fix everything? 

Are those thoughts useful or not useful? 

In the Two Kinds of Thoughts Sutta (MN 19), the Buddha describes how he looked at his own mind prior to his enlightenment. He said that when he looked at his mind, sometimes he saw wholesome thoughts and sometimes he saw unwholesome thoughts. When he saw those unwholesome thoughts, he considered and reflected, “Is this beneficial, or is this harmful? Does it lead to the affliction of myself and others, or is it free from affliction? Does it not cause trouble?” When he saw that his mind was going in a direction that was going to cause suffering, he abandoned those thoughts. He freed his mind from them. 

He also saw those thoughts that were helpful, thoughts of generosity, kindness, and compassion. Though there was nothing to fear from those wholesome thoughts, though they didn’t cause any affliction, nevertheless, they prevented the deepening of his concentration. And so he also allowed those thoughts to subside in order to deepen his concentration and realize awakening. 

He used the simile of a cowherd. When the crops are thick before harvest, the cowherd has to be diligent to keep his cows from straying into the fields and munching on the crops because if he allowed them to wander into the fields, that cowherd would be fined or punished. Similarly, if we allow our minds to follow habitual thoughts of desire, fear, anger, hate, delusion, and conceit, we will be punished, in the sense that we will experience the results of those unwholesome patterns. 

There also comes a time when those crops are taken in after the harvest, and there’s no problem then for the cows to wander in the fields. Similarly, there are times when just as the cowherd can sit under the shade of a tree and simply be mindful of the visiting cows, there’s also a time when we can look at the quality of our minds and realize there’s nothing to fear. There’s absolutely no problem with these thoughts of wisdom and clarity, reflection and kindness, and commitment and virtue. We can rest back and simply be mindful that those thoughts are there. 

So there are different modes of working with thoughts. That mode changes depending upon whether the thoughts are useful or not useful, beneficial or not beneficial, harmful or helpful. And we also consider our aim: Is it the time to rest back and allow the thoughts to arise and pass with no entanglement and no concern? Or are we trying to deepen our concentration, really steady our focus on something? Then, we may want to be more diligent and work more specifically with removing distracting thoughts. 

Excerpted from Shaila Catherine’s Dharma Talk, “Beyond Distraction: Five Practical Ways to Focus the Mind.”