Tonight’s Dharma talk draws on a chapter called “Working with the Thinking Mind” in Mark Coleman’s book From Suffering to Peace. The chapter begins with a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi: “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”
Most of us grow up being conditioned to think that happiness stems from external conditions such as loving relationships, professional success, or financial security. The Buddha’s teachings about the importance of training the mind go against the stream. He taught that our wellbeing depends on how aware we are of thoughts and mental patterns.
On the positive side, we can channel mental powers of observation, evaluation and discernment to create beautiful works of art, architectural feats, satellites that explore outer space, and strategies to alleviate climate change. Yet the mind’s negative potential is evident in environmental depredation and weapons of mass destruction. We know how the mind can turn against itself with crippling self-judgments and doubts or worries about an uncertain future.
Mindfulness practice can help us to detect delusional thinking that causes suffering. With attentive practice, we learn to disengage from dysfunctional thinking and to release unproductive mental patterns. Unattended, most of our mental activity happens automatically because our brains are wired to repeat habitual impulses, reactions and mental biases.
Mark Coleman refers to the National Science Foundation’s estimate that individuals think over 50,000 thoughts a day—nearly one per second. No wonder the most common hindrance in meditation is being lost in thoughts—most of them recycled from prior days and weeks. It can be dismaying to face how many of our thoughts are neither original nor interesting. As we practice letting go of passing thoughts, we realize that what we think is not all true nor as real as we believe.
There is a Chinese story about a Taoist monk who painted a tiger on the wall of his cave. When he completed the final touches on the eyes, the monk became scared, mistaking his drawing for a real tiger. We trick ourselves in similar ways with our mental creations. Just thinking of tasty guacamole, I feel hungry. I imagine a distant friend and feel nostalgia. When I recall a memory of co-worker’s criticism, I hold my breath and tighten my belly. If I believe my thoughts are real, I hurtle through various emotions, which can upset me in body and mind, and I am not present for what is actually unfolding right in front of me.
Supposedly, near the end of his life, Mark Twain commented, “I am an old man, and I have known a great many troubles in my life, most of which never happened.”
The word papancha refers to mental proliferation, which Coleman calls “a tumbleweed of thoughts.” For example, I walk past a garden and smell the scent of gardenias. I start free associating, remembering when I was eating at an outdoor café in the central plaza of Oaxaca, Mexico. Vendors approached me with trays of diminutive, sweet-smelling gardenia bouquets. Memories of the floral displays trigger a cascade of thoughts. I wonder if my maternal grandmother had gardenias in her garden on Long Island. She loved all kinds of flowers and was the head of her local Garden Club chapter. But she lived too far north to cultivate bougainvillea, which flourishes in Houston. Before I know it, I have traveled from Mexico to New York to Houston in my mind. This kind of rumination can be endless.
With mindfulness, I am able to let go of mental images and ideas that flit across the screen of awareness. Like Mark Coleman, I find it helpful to imagine awareness as a vast blue sky and thoughts as clouds that continuously float across the expanse of the mind. In meditation, I can abide in this sky-like awareness without becoming lost in focusing on each individual cloud. Even when fearful thoughts fill my head, they are like powerful storms that pass away, leaving the sky itself unaltered. Awareness has a capacity to hold all experience, no matter how intense or unsettling.
Beginning meditators often try to stop thinking. It is not only impossible but also undesirable to achieve a life that is free of thoughts. We need to think in order to be engaged, creative and effective in the world. The goal is to develop a wise relationship with the process of thinking by attending to wholesome thoughts and relinquishing unwholesome thoughts. With practice, we learn to distinguish thinking that leads to wisdom, clarity and understanding from thinking that results in painful mental states.
Judging thoughts tend to be especially painful. Coleman calls self-judgment “a modern epidemic” and quotes Honoré de Balzac: “The more a man judges, the less he loves.”
With the brain hard-wired to see what’s wrong with the world and with ourselves, we tend to focus on what is problematic or lacking. Judging people for not living up to an idealized standard pushes them away and leaves us isolated. Critical thoughts can lead to false feelings of superiority—and aloneness.
Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein reminisces about judging fellow meditators during a long meditation retreat. As he sat in the dining room, he judged people for walking too fast or too slowly, for eating too much or too little food, and for not being mindful enough. Suddenly, he realized his lack of mindfulness about his own judging mind. Seeing the humor in this situation, he used his awareness as an incentive to note and release judging thoughts.
Too often, however, our inner critic is ruthlessly intolerant about our own lapses in mindfulness. A friend of mine, whom I’ll call “Lucy,” used to refer to herself as “a loser,” a habit that undermined her sense of worth. As she practiced meditation, she began to notice how many of her thoughts were negative judgments about her perceived faults, shortcomings and mistakes—about how she was “never good enough.” Noting how many times she criticized herself for what she “could have or should have done better,” Lucy woke up to the negative impact of these critical thoughts and how they were depleting her energy. She learned to reassure herself that most of her negative self-judgments were generalities that were not true. When I saw Lucy recently, I was struck by her energetic, positive demeanor—a benefit of mindfully monitoring her judging mind.
Coleman reminds us that we don’t have to believe judgmental thoughts or take them personally. Instead of giving the judging mind unquestioned power and authority, we can evaluate its credibility. A useful application of mindfulness is to recognize self-judgments and to meet the painful pattern with compassionate attention. When we identify unwholesome thoughts, we can see their inaccuracies and let them go.
If judgments about the past arise, we can challenge the judging mind’s view. As Coleman says, “Hindsight is 20/20, and what is done is done.” It is a relief to release criticisms of past actions based on the unfair perspective of hindsight. I find it helpful to recall that all of us have done the best we could with the level of consciousness that we had in that moment.
Now I’ll guide you through an adapted form of Mark Coleman’s meditation practice called “Mindfulness of Thoughts.”
Sit in a comfortable posture and close your eyes.
While focusing attention on your breathing, become aware of the vast sky of the mind.
Notice various thoughts, images, ideas, views, and stories that float across that sky.
Note thoughts just as they arise.
Practice the three Rs: recognize, release, and return.
Recognize the thought, release your fascination with it, and return to sensing the breath.
Repeating this process over and over builds concentration.
Now begin to identify and label each kind of thought that arises.
First categorize thoughts in relation to past, present or future.
Is the thought a memory or a reflection on a past event?
Is it a plan for the future or a speculation on what might possibly happen?
Is the thought an awareness of what is occurring right now, perhaps a commentary or an analysis?
Notice if the thoughts are more inclined towards the past, present or future.
Then become more specific about exactly what kinds of thoughts arise.
Instead of becoming lost in the content and details of the thought, shift to recognize its type.
The more quickly you recognize the characteristic of a thought, the less likely you are to be stuck in its web.
For example, if you are thinking about what you will eat after meditating, note softly to yourself, “planning, planning.”
If you are recalling an incident that happened before meditating, note, “remembering, remembering.”
When you imagine a scenario that is not connected to your present experience, note, “fantasizing, fantasizing.”
Be alert if any of the five classic impediments arise, labeling them as “desire,” “aversion,” “restlessness,” “sleepiness,” or “doubting.”
Expand your awareness to notice both thoughts and your relationship to them.
Note how you react to different thoughts.
Are you labeling any thoughts with a negative emotional quality or tone?
Does any judgment arise when you catch yourself lost in thinking?
Acknowledging how natural and human it is to be absorbed in thoughts allows you to find a sense of ease and humor with the process of noting, releasing and returning.
Next, observe how much you take your thoughts to be reality.
The thought of a ghost is not a ghost, but simply an image in the mind.
If you believe your thoughts to be true, you are likely to be sucked into them.
By recognizing their ephemeral, insubstantial nature, thoughts will have less hold on you.
Lastly, be aware of the way you identify thoughts as yours, as if you are initiating them.
Most thoughts happen randomly or out of a complex web of causes and conditions.
Can you create a spacious, impersonal relationship with thoughts as if they were clouds floating in a vast sky?
As you bring this meditation to a close, resolve to extend an awareness of thoughts throughout daily life.
As you learn to release unhelpful thoughts, notice how much more present you are to your immediate experience and how that presence contributes to your sense of wellbeing.