Insight Meditation Houston

Tara Brach’s ‘True Refuge’ (7)

Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Tara Brach’s book True Refuge, exploring the theme of Chapter Seven: obsessive thinking.

Asked to describe the consciousness of today’s world, Thai forest monk Ajahn Buddhadasa answered, “Lost in thought.”  Indeed, we tend to lose ourselves inside an ongoing stream of thoughts, believing and identifying with mental creations about ourselves and others.  We’re all familiar with what Tara calls “everyday obsessing,” the kind of free-floating worrying, planning, and judging that attaches itself to whatever object presents itself.

The other night, Mark and I hosted dinner for some friends, and we were pleased that they praised the meal we cooked for them.  After our guests left, I caught myself worrying about finding another delicious recipe for our next dinner party.  Instead of resting contentedly, I was fretting about an unknown future.  I was able to return to the present moment, as Mark and I walked our dog around the block and watched her sniffing enthusiastically around the same bush that had excited her in the morning.  Marisol reminded me that the simplest things are vibrantly alive for us when we meet them with embodied presence.

At its best, thinking is a valuable tool for surviving, creating, and thriving.   Intensive, mindful engagement with thoughts is required to write a poem, compose a symphony, or design a building.  As Tara says, “When the intention behind thinking is to deepen our understanding, to communicate clearly, to awaken spiritually, or to nurture life around us, then our thinking is not primarily focused on protecting the small self.”

But all too often our fear-based beliefs lead to repetitive thoughts as we try to bolster our sense of self, control stress, and escape from physical tension.  Taken to extreme, obsessive thoughts can result in violent and destructive words and actions that harm ourselves, plants, animals and other people. The antidote is to focus with awareness on the bodily sensations that accompany our addictive thinking. Once we investigate and tend to those sensations, we can release obsessive thoughts and flow more freely with life.

Instead of judging ourselves for our human foibles, it helps to bring interest, good humor and forgiveness to the investigation process, just as the neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor did while she was experiencing and recovering from a debilitating stroke.  In My Stroke of Insight, she writes that most of our emotions take just a minute and a half to move through the nervous system and body.  Afterwards our thoughts prolong the emotional charge.  By bringing mindfulness to these upsetting thoughts, we can liberate ourselves from unnecessary suffering.

A while ago, I awoke from a disturbing dream about a robber stealing my driver’s license and other personal identity cards.  A few hours after this dream, Mark and I rented B-cycles and stopped at our local bank.  While I ran inside to cash a check, he guarded our bikes for what we assumed would be a brief transaction.  I handed the endorsed check and my driver’s license to a new teller who was in the first day of his training period.  After searching on his computer for a while, he apologized for not being able to find my name or account in the system.  I reacted with, “That’s not possible.  My husband and I make deposits here often.”  The young man looked flustered and consulted with a more experienced teller, whom I knew from previous transactions.  She greeted me with friendly recognition, and I was sure that she’d solve the problem.  But she too admitted that she couldn’t find my name in the system.  Very apologetically, she said, “I’m not authorized to cash your check until you speak to a bank manager.”

Feeling as if I were still in my dream, my face flushed with impatience, “But you know I’m a regular client.”  Defensively, she explained that she was simply following bank rules.  On the way to the manager’s station, I stepped outside to let Mark know that I was in a scene from a Kafka novel.  He was as mystified as I was by my disappearance from the bank archives.  When I gave the manager Mark’s name and explained that we had a joint account, she located him in the system and found my name associated with his.  Immediately, she cashed my check and handed me the money.  By that time, I was too discombobulated to thank her properly.  Outside, Mark advised me to “Just let it go.”  I retorted, “You wouldn’t like to lose your identity either!”  As we bicycled away from the bank, I recognized how challenging it is to apply the Buddha’s teachings about no self to daily life.  I shifted gears (literally!), exhaled deeply, and released the thoughts that were fueling my irritation.

Through carefully observing his own mind, the Buddha saw that the more we repeat certain thoughts, the more associated emotions are activated.  As he was teaching the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha pointed to three classic stages to Right Thought: first, becoming aware of our thinking process; second, letting go of negative thought patterns; and third, cultivating goodwill.  He knew that conscious alignment with positive thinking alleviates suffering.  Now, over two thousand years later, modern neurologists have discovered that habitual thoughts affect the brain’s pathways: Neurons that fire together, wire together.  Current brain research affirms the Buddha’s wisdom about Right Thought.

Bejamin Libet, a neurophysiologist who explored the nature of free will, found that the part of the brain responsible for movement is active a quarter-second before we become aware of our intention to move.  If we are mindful during the brief pause between an impulse and an action, we can choose to speak or act wisely instead of habitually.

The other day, on our way to hear the Houston Symphony, Mark and I drove into the big parking garage near the downtown cultural center.  We passed up plenty of available parking spaces, hoping that we’d find one close to Jones Hall, so that we could avoid a long walk.  To our surprise, we encountered a long line of traffic.  A parking official directed us to follow the slow-moving cars down two levels to the basement of the garage.  When we finally parked the car, we climbed several flights of stairs and walked further than we would have if we hadn’t been so focused on finding the perfect parking spot.  Mark and I joked in Spanish about the bad karma of acting upon greedy thoughts: “Avaricia, avaricia.”

Tara reminds us that our thoughts and preoccupations with our self-image are real, because they create a felt experience, but they are not true, because they are dissociated from the aliveness and vastness of the what’s actually arising here and now.

During the recent meditation retreat at the Margaret Austin Center, I practiced waking up from the trance of recalling past triumphs and failures, or fantasizing about future fears and hopes.  Again and again, I’d return to awareness of sensations of breathing, energy vibrating in my hands, or feelings of contraction or expansion around my heart.  This steady practice of being present with what’s real in the present moment enabled me to delight in the swirling dance of butterflies in the fields outside the meditation hall, the brilliant red color of berries on a tree, the warmth of sunlight on my back, and the sweet smell of freshly mowed hay.

Tara’s exercise at the end of Chapter Seven is intended to cultivate an alert and friendly relationship with the “Top-Ten Hits”—the list of issues and themes that regularly fill your mind—which is probably similar to the preoccupations of most people around you.  Take a moment to consider what is this week’s winning thought in your Hit Parade.  Here’s a list of common obsessions to jog your memory:

How I look…

How I’m being treated…

Tasks on my to-do list…

What I’m craving…

What I hope will happen…

What I wish were different…

Errors I’ve made…

What others have done wrong…

Worries about someone else…

What certain symptoms might mean….

What to do about a relationship problem…

How I need to change…

How someone else should change…

What might go wrong

What has already gone wrong…

Choose the winning obsessive thought and give it a short name to describe it for easy recall, such as “my appearance,” “to-do list,” “mistakes,”  “illness,” or “relationship.”

While we’re here with the support of our sangha, let’s practice for a moment:

Closing your eyes, bring to mind your theme.  Identify it by its brief name, and pause a moment to bring nonjudgmental attention to your experience…  Notice any temptation to pursue associated thoughts, and acknowledge your ability to wake up from habitual trance…With an attitude of interest and acceptance, be present with whatever body sensations and/or related emotions are underlying those thoughts…Then, consciously relaxing with a few out-breaths, open your eyes and return to what’s happening around you right now.

Were there any surprises or insights?