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dealing with disturbing thoughts

In the Buddha’s Discourse on the Forms of Thought, he discusses five ways of dealing with the disturbing thoughts that arise either during formal meditation or as you go about your daily life:

think positive

The first method he suggests is:

If some unskilled thoughts associated with desire, aversion or confusion arise and disturb the mind, i you should attend instead to another characteristic  which is associated with what is skilled . . . It is like a skilled carpenter who can knock out a large peg with a small peg.

The Buddha is saying here that to dissipate a negative thought you have only to think of something positive. As a carpenter removes a large peg with a small one, you could dissolve a heavy, negative thought with a small compassionate idea. If you are thinking about someone who has hurt you, instead of aggravating the thought by telling yourself that they always do bad things, try to remember the occasions when they have been kind. If you suddenly have an irresistible desire to buy something very expensive that you cannot really afford, instead try buying a small present for somebody and replace greed by generosity. If you are waiting for someone who is late, instead of immediately thinking that this person has no respect or love for you, question whether there is some good reason for the delay. I was once kept waiting for someone and decided that
instead of feeling put upon I would phone to find out what had happened. When I did, I discovered that my friend thought that we had agreed to meet a week later!

know what hurts

The second method of dealing with disturbing thoughts is:

Scrutinize the peril of these unskilled thoughts by thinking: 'these are unskilled thoughts, these are thoughts that have errors, indeed these are thoughts that are of painful results . . . It is like a woman or a man, young and fond of adornment, who if the carcass of a snake or a dog were hanging around their neck would be revolted and disgusted and throw it away immediately as soon as they noticed it.

Here the Buddha is telling us to think about the consequences of our thoughts and to realize that certain types of thought will cause pain. You might think that you are telling it like it is, that you are right and everyone else is wrong. Repeating this to yourself, you become more and more self-righteous until by the time you meet whoever is concerned you are very angry But as soon as you attack someone verbally they will get defensive, even if you are in the right. You hurt yourself by getting worked up in this way and you also hurt others.

This method is about letting go of certain thoughts because you see their painful outcome. The Buddha’s example is rather macabre but he is trying to make us realize the difficult nature of certain thoughts. When we are lost in our thoughts we see only that they are justified. With awareness and attention, we are able to see the negative effects of these thoughts.

distract yourself

The third method is:

Bring about forgetfulness and lack of attention to those thoughts . . . It is like a man who, not wanting to see the material shapes that come within his range of vision, would close his eyes or look another way

This method seems to go against the general message of the Buddha, who tells us to be aware and mindful. However, the Buddha is pragmatic and knows the mind well. Some thoughts are too strong to overcome directly and the best way to dissipate them is to change your focus (although in order to do this you first have to See that you are having these thoughts).

If you are fabricating negative unrealities, distract yourself in a healthy way by going for a walk, talking to a friend, reading an absorbing or inspiring book. Do
something that will help your mind to change its focus and in that way dissipate the energy and power of negative thoughts.

I used to have a tendency to fabricate negative storylines. One sentence or image would be enough to send me into a spiral of negative thoughts. When I realized this I put into use the second and the third methods of the discourse. First I had to see that the thoughts, however compelling, would lead to painful results. Then, in order not to fall into them, I would  distract myself, by reading a novel, for example. The end result was that these kinds of thoughts very quickly stopped troubling me.

This made me realize that if you do not feed the flames of negativity the fire will die out by itself. These methods not only help you deal with the situation at hand, they also, over time, help to diminish and sometimes completely dissolve the arising of certain disturbing patterns of thought.

question your thinking

question your thinking

The fourth method of dealing with disturbing thoughts is to:

Attend to the thought function and form of these thoughts . . . even as it might occur to a man who is walking quickly: 'Now, why do I walk quickly? Suppose I were to walk slowly?’ It might occur to him as he was walking slowly: 'Now why do I walk slowly?. . .Suppose I were to lie down? . . . This man, having abandoned the hardest posture, might take to the
easiest posture.

This method brings space and possibilities to your thinking. It helps you look into the root of a thought, it encourages you to question the form of the thought. Why are you thinking what you are thinking? I Could you think about something else? Do not ask psychoanalytically but experientially: 'What happened a few minutes ago to lead me to think this?' The Buddha encourages you to then question and be creative with alternative trains of thoughts that could  make your life a lot easier.

push it away

The fifth method recommended by the Buddha is:

By the mind subdue, restrain and dominate the mind . . . It is like a strong man who, having taken hold of a weaker man by the head or the shoulders, might subdue, restrain and dominate him.

This might seem antithetical to accepted psychology that you should not repress anything. Personally, I like the pragmatism of the Buddha. lf everything else fails and you continue to have disturbing and dangerous thoughts, then stop them by pure will power. This is not the only method, it is one among five to be applied
when necessary.

The example the Buddha chooses illustrates that your mind is stronger than you think. We tend to believe that our thoughts are stronger than we are ourselves,
but that is not so. You cannot reduce yourself to just one thought; you are bigger than this and have more potential. One way to apply this method gently is to say
to yourself: 'Let it go for now.’

When a friend of mine has difficulty with his thoughts he says to himself: 'So what! So what!’ Someone recently told me that at similar moments she tells herself: 'I hear what you are saying, let it be now.’ Both find their tricks work well for them. Each of you can also find creative ways to deal with your own
disturbing thoughts. First be aware and have the intention to do something, then creative solutions will arise naturally.

Our minds have so much scope and potential. Why should we let ourselves be burdened by our thoughts? Let’s keep in mind one of the Buddha’s verses:

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as a deed;
The deed develops into habit
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.