Have you ever wondered where our thoughts come from? Are we actually in control of our thoughts or do they control us? Thoughts just seem to pop into our minds seemingly out of nowhere and we invariably follow them up and create a whole story around them. Is it the case that if we become aware enough and can pause even for one second and stop the storyline before it gets going, train our minds to control the flow of thoughts, then perhaps we can we live more peacefully and contentedly? Perhaps we don’t realise that we can train our minds and gain control over our thoughts. Perhaps we don’t realise that our thoughts have repercussions – they are just thoughts right? Actually our thoughts do have repercussions.
So let’s ask those questions and take a look at what happens when we get lost in the flow of our thoughts and don’t control the habitual patterns of our thinking and thoughts. Before we do though, we need to be mindful that it can be a bit of a shock when we start to observe what is happening in our minds. We may suddenly wake up and not like what we see and that can be a bit daunting, especially when we immediately judge ourselves when certain thoughts pop up.
Therefore, there is a code of practice that we need to keep in mind when we observe our thoughts and start seeing them for the first time. There are 4 things to bear in mind:
First: It is vitally important that we don’t judge the types of thoughts that pop up.
Second: Good thoughts, bad thoughts, neutral thoughts are all just thoughts floating through our minds – they come and go – it is only when we latch on to them and feed them that we make them solid and a ‘thing’.
Third: Thoughts are like clouds in the sky of our mind – they don’t have any substance that is real – they are just like clouds that float by and dissolve back into the sky.
Fourth: The clouds of thoughts can be light and fluffy or black and stormy, but we regard them all as just clouds and as insubstantial as clouds.
So let’s look at some examples of thoughts that might pop up. For example perhaps you’re at work, its quiet and the boss is out of the office and up pops the thought, “What shall I have for dinner today?” The thought itself is pretty familiar and seems innocuous enough, but immediately that thought comes up, a whole galaxy of thoughts that are circling the ‘what to have for dinner’ planet arise and before we know it we’re orbiting and spiralling around that thought with other thoughts such as “What’s in the fridge?” “Do I want to get a takeaway?” “Perhaps I need to go to the supermarket on the way home, now what do I need…..” And so we start making a shopping list in our heads and then we remember that last time we were in the supermarket we bumped into Jane while I was looking at those nice new summer clothes, I’ll have another look at the dresses, I might get one….. And so it goes on and on until we get distracted by another thought which may or may not be related to the original thought that we had been contemplating. This kind of story line is quite pleasant and so we are happy enough to keep going with it. We feel happy at the thought of going shopping and can’t wait until its going home time because we want to continue with these happy thoughts in order to maintain those happy feelings. The energy of the thought is light, flowing, full of possibilities. You could say this cloud is light and fluffy in a blue sky of contentment and spaciousness.
On the other hand if we don’t like the thought that pops up, for example the boss has asked you to do something that you don’t like doing, the worst thing he could ask, and immediately the thought pops up “Oh bleep, not this again” then the galaxy of orbiting and spiralling thoughts start up “Why do I have to do this? It’s not fair! I hate it! I never do it right!” and so on and so forth and we start to feel sorry for ourselves and may even start grumbling to ourselves under our breath and before we know it we are starting to feel angry and really fed up to such an extent that we start to visualise throwing our boss off of the roof or handing in our notice. Both of those scenarios then create further scenarios such as “How can I lure him onto the roof?” “How can I push him off without anyone seeing me?” and so on and so forth. This kind of story line is not pleasant for us and we just want to get rid of it. We feel angry and the energy of the thought has become crystallised and solid in our minds and we want to get rid of it. We don’t like it, we feel that we need to ‘do’ something to get rid of it but we don’t know what. These clouds have become stormy, violent, dramatic. The sky is completely obscured and intensely black and who knows where the lightening of our actions will strike and set something ablaze?
Our thoughts are generally triggered by what we see, hear, touch, smell or taste. We see someone wearing those trainers we wanted but were too expensive and we feel jealous. Or we see a friend walking towards us and we feel uplifted. As we walk past our favourite restaurant, we can smell the food cooking and our mouth starts watering and we remember our last visit or we smell the pile of rubbish lying outside the restaurant and we crinkle our nose in disgust. A car exhaust suddenly makes a loud bang and we jump and feel annoyed, or we hear birds singing and feel uplifted, our scarf feels cosy on a cold winter’s day or too warm when the sun comes out – all kinds of sensual perceptions can trigger thoughts and we just go with them without even realising that we are doing it.
So what is the problem with just going with the flow of our thoughts? The problem is that our thoughts invariably lead to actions and those actions create repercussions for us. By the time we get to the point where the thoughts compel us to act, we have made the thoughts a ‘thing’. The thoughts have become solid emotional reactions. E-motion – it is in the word, we have to move, act, do something and give expression to those thoughts. The actions that are the end product of the thoughts can be benign, useful, relevant, harmless or harmful and even dangerous. For example, a harmless thought might be like deciding to help someone by opening a door for them. The repercussions could be either a smile and a thank you and so we feel good that we’ve helped someone, but not always I have to say, sometimes the recipient might treat us like a door keeper and I wonder what thoughts will arise in us then?
The actions that result from too much thinking feed the story line we are creating and can actually be harmful for ourselves and for others if those actions are unwholesome and get played out in the outside world. Externally, it may be as simple as buying that outfit that we really love and forgetting that by doing so we won’t have enough money left over to pay the rent bill until it’s too late. Maybe the actual act of buying the outfit has been prompted by being in a good mood and wanting to make the good mood last or it could be just retail therapy to try and cheer ourselves up when the day isn’t going well. Or maybe we are feeling jealous that someone has bought that nice new car and so we create a story wondering how come they could afford it and start wondering whether we should buy a new car to keep up with the Jones’s even though we can’t afford it, so how can we raise the money and so forth. At a more dangerous level, are those power mad tyrants who really believe that it is okay to kill innocent people because they believe that the land they occupy should be theirs and a war begins which they justify to themselves as being the right course of action. Thoughts will always have repercussions if we don’t learn how to control them and get to the point where we act them out.
The resulting actions can also be dangerous when they play themselves out in our internal world. We internalise the actions against ourselves so we direct the anger at ourselves, beat ourselves up, judge ourselves, compare ourselves to others to such an extent that the end result is that we become depressed. We create through our thoughts and build ourselves up such a poor self-image that we fall apart and end up having to seek outside help to get ourselves back together again. In the end of course it can get so heavy and unbearable that sadly people commit suicide.
So I believe that it is really important for us to start looking at the thoughts that arise in our minds and ask ourselves some questions. What are they like? Do they have a theme? Are they familiar? If we can be aware when a thought arises can we stop at that point and just observe and feel the texture, the energy of the thought, rather than go to the next stage and create the swirling galaxy of peripheral thoughts? Is it possible for us to be able to hold our seats when thoughts arise that we find challenging because they’ve spiralled out of control and we are now having an emotional response to them? The emotional response at this stage feels solid, a thing, and will acting out actually help remove the ‘thing’ or help remove the solidity of the feeling? Is it possible to have the bravery to want to start the process to train ourselves to believe that we are enough in ourselves, to believe that we are worthy, to have self-worth and ultimately to bring a sense of space around our thoughts enabling us to ground ourselves into the soil of the peaceful place inside of us? Can we discover that good ground of potential within us that is our birth right and that manifests in us as our hotline to peace, inner wisdom and skilful actions, and bring that into our world so that the actions that result from our thoughts are no longer so solid and predictable. Is it possible to tame our minds enough to be able to stop the flow and let the thoughts go?
The answer thankfully is ‘yes’! Fundamentally, we are not helpless victims, we are instead brave like warriors and when we bravely face ourselves and start the work of taming our minds we can discover how we can subdue our monkey minds. It is indeed possible to tame our minds and the reward for this diligence is that we find how we can navigate the ups and downs of our daily lives thus living a more fulfilling and enriching life. This can really only be achieved through diligently practicing Shamatha Peaceful Abiding meditation. This is because we need to provide a space for the benefits of the practice to emerge.
But it does take practice and commitment and we often make excuses when it comes to working on ourselves. We acknowledge that its good that Josie Bloggs is doing it but nah, I haven’t got time and I don’t feel brave enough, maybe another day. But crucially another day may be too late, we could be on our death beds before we remember to do it. However, practising meditation is the only way that we can answer those questions and become more fully who we are meant to be and get off of the cycle of suffering that our thoughts can cause.
So we need to know how meditation can intervene in the process of discovering our inner light, our goodness, the place of peaceful abiding. It is interesting when meditating, we are basically sitting doing nothing, just observing our breath, being mindful of our body and practising shamatha, peaceful abiding meditation. But much of the time, we find we get very easily distracted and become lost in our thoughts. But at the point that we become aware of our thoughts and label them ‘thinking’ we are training our mind to come back to the breath.
So what happens when we do become aware that we are no longer observing our breath or our body? What happens is that we are bringing ourselves back to the present moment.
What happens at the point that we become aware that we have been thinking and we have a thought is we gently bring ourselves back to the breath. We don’t judge ourselves. We haven’t failed. We just come back to the breath. More often than not however we are immediately distracted by yet another thought. This seems to happen all the time when we’re meditating, we are constantly being distracted. But this reveals to us that we don’t actually have control of our minds.
But that’s okay! Because believe it or not, that is the first stage of taming our minds, of starting to gain control over our minds. We have to get to this first stage in order to recognise and accept that we don’t have control over our thoughts, they control us, and like debris floating down a babbling brook, they bob up and down and just go wherever the flow takes them. A leaf falls off of an overhanging tree and is immediately caught up in the flow and is powerless to do anything about it. That is where most of us tend to be with our thoughts in meditation. A thought pops up and like the leaf we get carried away with it. So when we are meditating, we have to make sure that we don’t beat ourselves up when we discover we are no longer being aware of our breath, instead, we take control of our mind and gently bring it back to the breath.
Doing this over and over, even if our attention on the breath only lasts for a second at a time is how and where the magic of meditation happens. In the gap between being aware that we have strayed and when we take our minds back to the breath is a space. That space is what we are developing. This is our awareness.
Awareness is a feature of our minds that we often don’t connect with. Something distracts us, we start thinking about it, and it consumes the total space of our mind, our total awareness. The way we completely fill our minds with thoughts has been described as being like a cow chewing the cud in a huge field but it only is aware of the cud and not the spaciousness of the field that it is in. This is like us when we start to observe our minds, we notice the all-consuming nature of our thoughts but gradually, as we practice and become familiar with our minds, we start to notice the gaps more and more and we become more aware.
This then is the purpose of meditation. To gain a sense of space, where thoughts arise but we don’t chase after them. We can’t stop the flow of thoughts, this practice is not about stopping the flow of thoughts it’s about watching them arise and letting them go. This creates space. Space equates to peaceful abiding. We observe our thoughts as they arise and maybe we recognise many of them as we get familiar with them and we let them go. But in that space we are able to discriminate which thoughts are beneficial and which are not. We can choose what we want to focus our mind’s energy on or just rest in a state of peace. The peaceful place is found when we don’t feed the thoughts and create a ‘thing’. We let the thoughts go. We don’t hang onto them. They become like clouds in the sky. In this peaceful place, we discover our own intrinsic wisdom can bubble up and manifest. We can become enlightened.
This of course is a lifetimes practice for most of us Eventually though, through regular practice, the length of the gaps, our awareness, becomes longer and we start to feel more spacious, more refreshed, and we are able to connect with the peaceful place within and then we know that our practice is starting to work because we start to see the benefits of our practice translating into our daily lives.
May all beings benefit from this blog.
Written by Christine Jeffcutt