This reflection appeared in the newsletter from January 24th, 2022.
A common question from meditators of all experience levels is, “what to do with distracting thoughts, as much during meditation as throughout the day?”
On the most basic level, we first bring awareness to the experience of thinking, and acknowledge, “thoughts are happening.” Importantly, rather than turn the thoughts into an enemy, we practice radical equanimity to our predicament. Minds think – this is normal! Not a problem!!
From this foundation, we can work with the particularly distracting ones from a place of curiosity and playfulness, rather than frustration and reactivity. In one discourse, the Buddha lists five excellent strategies to remove these distracting thoughts. Of course, there are way more five, but that these are the ones he specifically highlighted makes a statement. Here’s the list with my commentary:
- Find an antidote. If you’re caught up in anger, shift your thoughts to loving-kindness. If you’re caught up in sorrow, shift your thoughts to gratitude. If you’re caught up in complacency, shift your thoughts to your deepest aspirations. The idea is just about finding some skillful counter to the overpowering mood/thoughts of the mind, so as to unstick yourself. As another application, when I’m feeling apathetic or depressed, I like to apply the antidote of behavioral activation — short bursts of “doing something,” like 3 yoga poses or walking around the block.
- Reflect on the consequences of getting sucked into the thought. For example, if you’re sitting around letting your mind spin in anxiety & worry, what does that lead to? A state you feel good about? The idea is that when you really see the adverse outcome of engaging with distracting thoughts, you’ll find a deep motivation to do whatever it takes to put them aside; and, often, it’s simply deciding, “no! I won’t think this thought anymore!”
- Don’t pay attention to it. Like an energized dog trying to get you to play, if you don’t get them any feedback, sooner or later they’ll get tired out and calm down. In other words, if you stop paying attention to your thoughts, they eventually trail off. One classic aid for this strategy is shifting your attention to something neutral, like the breath, body sensations, or sounds. I find this is a good antidote for low-to-moderate strength thoughts; however, for the really intense ones, it tends to not work as well, at least in my experience.
- Going to the root of the thought. As an example, if you realize your thoughts are obsessively replaying a conversation you had yesterday, you might ask yourself, “why am I thinking these thoughts?” or “what feelings/views are feeding this thought-chain?” or, more simply, “is this thought helpful?” The point isn’t to arrive at a precise answer to these questions, but merely to snap out of the trance of the storyline. It’s like realizing you’re hurrying through breakfast, and then asking yourself, “why am I hurrying?” “is eating fast truly benefiting me?” Looking right at it and questioning it has a curious way of helping you come back to center.
- Willpower. If you’ve exhausted all the other strategies, the Buddha suggests that you “crush mind with mind,” and use your willpower to bring it to an end. In my gentleness-oriented mind, I think of this strategy more as perseverance, as in, if you’re on mile 23 of a marathon and you’re struggling, you use willpower or perseverance to get yourself to keep going no matter how tough it is. So much of the spiritual life is the ability to keep applying yourself amidst adversity. Sooner or later, things will change; they always do.
I challenge you to pick one of these five strategies that seems to resonate. The next time you notice yourself getting entangled in a distracting thought chain, see if you can apply that strategy!