The following article is excerpted from a talk given by Martine Batchelor in her upcoming Tricycle online course, Knowing How It Feels: Creatively Engaging with Habits. Learn more about this in-depth exploration of mindfulness of feeling tone and finding the freedom to engage creatively with our lives at learn.tricycle.org.
The Vitakkasanthana Sutta, a text found in the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, is a particularly helpful one for us meditators. In fact, it’s sometimes called The Removal of Distracting Thought. Conveniently enough, it’s also a very short sutta. The Buddha teaches on several different methods to work with difficult or disturbing thoughts. He talks specifically about these methods in terms of their usefulness for when we are sitting in meditation, but I think that these tips can be used in daily life, too.
Here’s how to put a few of these methods into practice. You’re sitting there on the cushion, and suddenly you have this really strong, disturbing thought. From the Buddha’s perspective, a disturbing thought is any thought that leads to harm to yourself or to others. It might be characterized by craving or hatred. Having that thought, and paying a lot of attention to it, compels you to act in a harmful way. But the Buddha offers a few methods for confronting that thought before it turns into action.
If you have a difficult thought, you can “replace” it by thinking a positive thought or considering a positive quality, such as friendliness or compassion. Turn the attention that wants to go to the difficult thought into a thought about friendliness, and bring a sense of friendliness to your experience, in order to change the “tone” of the difficult thought.
To give an ordinary example: you are waiting for somebody, and at 9:00, they’re not there. Your thoughts might start to sound like this: “OK, ten past nine, what’s going on?” 9:20: “They don’t love me.” 9:30: “Nobody loves me.” 9:40: “I hate the world.” Suddenly the narrative switches: “They’re not arriving on time because they’re rude and inconsiderate.”
Instead of continuing down this path of negative thoughts, the Buddha suggests that you incorporate some flexibility into your stream of consciousness. Simply open up to a different reason why the person might be late. Maybe they are in a hurry to go somewhere else, or something happened that’s out of their control that prevented them from arriving on time. If you can, amplify this more positive thought even more. Maybe something wonderful happened to your friend, and that’s why they’re running late. Or maybe something terrible happened—and you need to offer them compassion.
The Buddha is basically saying: don’t jump to conclusions. You don’t know why your friend is late.
There are other methods you can use to avoid falling into loops of thoughts. Notice when you use the words “always,” “nothing,” “never,” “nobody”—these are all words that amplify and hyperbolize disturbing thoughts. When you think, “Nobody loves me” or “Nothing works in my life,” actively question these thoughts. Is this true? Is it always true? What is this thought? Could I think something totally different?
We actually have incredible power over our thoughts—more power than any one thought has over us. To tap into this power, we need to find the creative potential for wisdom and of compassion within ourselves.
To learn more about the Buddha’s methods for working with difficult thoughts, join Martine’s new online course at learn.tricycle.org.
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