We cannot stop our thoughts. They arise with astonishing rapidity. We know that even the Buddha continued to have thoughts and feelings. What we can control is whether we engage those thoughts, or whether we just acknowledge them and allow them to subside.
There are several steps to this process. First, one has to be aware of a thought arising, which requires mindfulness. If we go through our day, distracted by all the things going on in our lives and around us, then we will not be aware of the thought arising and the opportunity of not engaging it is lost. So first, be mindful as much as you can throughout the day. Get in the habit of observing yourself and your mind.
Second, if you are aware of a thought arising, your ego-mind will be pushing you to engage it, which is why the thought arose to begin with. And we know how strong and wily the ego-mind is. Even if you have surrendered your ego to your true Buddha nature and turned your will and your life over to your true Buddha nature, your ego still remains part of you, just waiting for an opportune moment, a weakness, to arise and regain its hold on you.
It will use every trick in its book to get you to discard a spiritual approach to the matter and engage the thought. The ego is great at belittling spirituality and meditation; of voicing doubts; appealing to what you “really” want.
Third, against the barrage of the ego, your task is to be aware of what your ego-mind is doing and not engage the thought. But don’t try to white-knuckle the push of the ego; that won’t work. It will just make the ego’s drive stronger. Nor do you want to negate your thought ... it comes from a part of you.
Instead what you want to do is defuse the thought or feeling. If it’s an innocuous thought, something that is just distracting you from being present, a friend of mine taught me to gently say, “thinking, thinking,” to stop your thought and bring yourself back to the present. What you’re telling your ego-mind is that there is a time and place when thought is appropriate ... thought to plan things, for example ... but this is not the time. The ego-mind is not so invested in these types of thoughts, and I’ve found this technique works. (To be free of the known when it is the time for thought, see the post on that topic.)
But if it’s the kind of thought or feeling that pushes your buttons, you need to acknowledge it and have compassion for where it’s coming from. Do not fight it. Do not run from it. This is a teaching of Pima Chodron, which a friend recently shared with me.
Whether it’s a thought about the past or the future, it all comes from the past. That is the seedbed for the ego-mind. So while acknowledging the thought and having compassion, be firm in saying that the past is past. The present is a new moment; each day is a new day; and feel confident that if you live each day well, the future will take care of itself. Acknowledge that you have worked hard and laid good plans. But if things don’t work out you know that all will be well regardless and you will maintain your peace and happiness because you practice non-attachment. What will be will be.
Recently, I had occasion to put this teaching to practical use. I was about to leave on an extended vacation trip, and as usual I started worrying about all the things that could go wrong and I started coughing, almost gagging at times. That’s how nervous I would get. This was a familiar pattern for me. I tried using all my tools ... I watched my breath, I tried to be present, I knew these thoughts were just illusions. But this time, the feeling inside me wouldn’t subside. And it was so strong that I actually got scared; it felt like I was losing control of myself.
Then I remembered Pima Chodron’s teaching. I acknowledged the fear that I felt and the insecurity that was its source. And I had compassion for it. And following the lessons noted in an earlier posting on “Freeing Yourself from Fear,” I said that that is the past. The present is fresh. I felt confident that I had planned well but that even if problems occurred my spirituality would enable me to deal with things as they arose and maintain my peace and happiness. I truly had faith that if I lived each moment, each day well, the future would take care of itself. The nightmare scenario was only in my mind; it was not reality.
And would you believe, I immediately stopped coughing and being nervous! And indeed for the entire duration of the trip, although I had some tense moments, I quickly brought myself back and had a relaxing, enjoyable trip. My true Buddha nature is confident and secure. I know that. But rarely has that confidence and security been allowed to see the light of day by my ego-mind. I was so thankful to my friend and to Pima.
I have continued this approach. Each morning when I am present in the moment while meditating, I am aware that there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today, just the present moment. This is the only reality, all else is thought. And as I savor the moment, I am aware of any feelings or sensations that I have at that moment. If fear is present in any form, I practice acknowledgment and compassion towards it while confirming the present and my faith.