Don’t Believe Your ThoughtsJul 08, 2021
Freeing Our Minds, Part II
Last time I wrote about recognizing when our minds are creating false news and conspiracy theories – the “Gollums” that can jail our hearts and spirits, creating suffering for ourselves and others. It is humbling to recognize, as the Buddha did over two thousand years ago, that we all misperceive reality: not some of the time or half of the time, but nearly all of the time. Stories created by our minds are the source of much of our suffering, individually and collectively. To free ourselves from this, it’s crucial to not identify with these stories, but to see them for what they are. This creates more choice and freedom.
It’s helpful to remember that most of the time, we don’t purposefully create our thoughts. Thinking is a physiological event: thoughts arise just as our eyes see, hearts beat, and lungs breathe, without us willing them to do so. Obsessive thoughts in particular can be a sign of hyperarousal of our nervous system, of fight or flight activation. When our nervous systems are activated in this way, our mental capacities constrict and our thoughts are more likely to take on certain qualities such as fear, anger, resentment, shame, comparison, controlling, planning, worrying, rehashing the past, rehearsing the future, etc.
Obsessive negative thought patterns can become very entrenched, creating belief patterns that can fuel depression and anxiety. In our meditation, it can be difficult to let such thoughts just arise and pass like clouds in the sky. Instead these thoughts may capture you, start thinking you. It’s a very helpful practice to recognize the habitual, unhelpful thought patterns that can arise without our conscious awareness. While we don’t create our thoughts, we do have agency over our attention. With these kinds of sticky and unhelpful thoughts, we may need to work a little more strictly to create strong boundaries for safety. We can make a self-care decision to not indulge them.
This is very different from suppression. It is not helpful to suppress difficult feelings - that doesn’t lead to freedom, but creates more suffering by trying to lock them away (but they always have a way of coming out!). Instead we identify the old, repetitive thought patterns that cause suffering in ourselves and others. Just like with a child who is about to step into a street with oncoming traffic, we strongly pull ourselves away from that trap. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this “changing the CD.” When we recognize thoughts that water negative seeds within us, we can abstain from watering those seeds so they no longer grow. Instead, we put on a CD that’s more helpful and nourishing.
In our meditation and mindfulness practice, the practice is to come back to the sensations of our bodies and breathing: because they are real, they are what’s actually happening in the present moment. Our thoughts are not real. They are like tv shows that we think are true. But just like “Reality TV,” they are not real or true at all! And just as with Reality TV, when people think they are real and true, we create an increasingly mean, rude, and fearful culture.
As we come back to our bodies, come back to feeling our contact with the earth, it lets our body and nervous system know that we are actually safe in this moment, that the stressful figments in our imaginations are not what is actually happening right now. This helps us unlink from those thought patterns. As we do this again and again, we gain more agency in not getting captured by our thoughts, in coming back to the reality of the moment.
In our next installment, we’ll explore how we can investigate unhelpful thought patterns even more deeply so they have less of a hold on us.