With patient practice, mindfulness of thoughts — simply witnessing our thoughts as they unfold in the present moment, freshly, free of fear, excitement, or judgement — frees us from deeply conditioned patterns.
Rhonda Byrne’s ultra-bestselling 2006 self-help book, The Secret, which, sold over 19 million copies and has been translated into 46 languages, is based on the so-called law of attraction. The main idea seems to be that positive thinking can lead to a person becoming a magnet for wealth, optimal health and true happiness.
While much of what Byrne teaches has been appropriately parodied in the media, the fact remains that the book reinforces the central Buddhist notion that we are what we think, as declared in the Dhammapada in its opening verses:
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a person speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows her, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage … If a person speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows her, like a shadow that never leaves her.”
the stories we tell ourselves in our heads
The Buddha, in teaching mindfulness of thoughts, was acutely aware of the human tendency to create stories from the raw data of sense impressions, self-spun narratives which often lead to distress, anxiety and illness. Rhonda Byrne is concerned with creating narratives which lead to happiness and wealth. In both cases we are struck by the centrality of personal narrative, of inner story-lines, and how they can affect us.
In the Buddhist understanding, we take in data from our six senses — yes six, as the mind is regarded as a sense faculty which produces thoughts and emotions. When one of our sense faculties, such as the eye, sees a sight, such as a red traffic light, a very subtle “feeling tone” (vedana) is generated of liking, disliking or neutrality with regard to that simple, pre-thought, immediate sense impression.
mindfulness of thoughts — the nitty gritty
Rae sensory data impinges on our organs of perception– these are called sense impressions. These impressions are below the level of conscious awareness; but in a matter if milliseconds they lead to “perception” in the Buddhist sense, which then engenders a thought. Now this initial thought moment, in the Buddhist analysis, happens just below the horizon of everyday consciousness. Milliseconds later, the thought enters conscious awareness–we may recognize we need to apply the brakes while driving, for example.
Freudian primary process
Curiously, if we lack the skill of self-aware bare attention (as Buddhist calls this, the essence of mindfulness training)–by the time a thought enters our conscious awareness we have automatically moved, milliseconds later, to the phase Buddhists call “proliferation.”
In other words: a thought or other sensory impression arises just below conscious awareness, and while in this misty space, within milliseconds reactions to that thought or sensory impression form in a manner similar to what the Freudians call primary process, or what Buddhist call craving, aversion, or ignorance.
the proliferation stage
The Buddha taught in his profound analysis of the mind that after thought blooms into conscious awareness, there often follows what he termed “proliferation” (papanca) – a mushrooming of initially related thoughts which often quickly proceed, tendril-like, to bring forth, for example, anxieties based on the past, plans about the future, or what could be simply described as inner chatter.
Mind you, this is still happening below the level conscious awareness of a person unskilled in mindful self-aware bare attention.
Milliseconds following our reception of sensory data though our six sense organs (remember, the mind, in the Buddhist understanding, is simply another sensory organ) the sense impression enters conscious awareness, bringing along a host of primary process reactive emotions, memories or random associative thoughts. In our day to day life, we are mostly aware of “proliferation” rather than the raw sense data the precedes this.
take a moment now to try this 30 second experiment
Right now, and be still. Look at the screen on which you are reading this and take a slow breath in and breath out. Settle into the experience of your body right now, just as it is.
Allow yourself to read this word: money.
Now close your eyes and be still for thirty seconds.
What happened during those thirty seconds?
Did the sense impression—the sight of the word “money” on the screen, trigger thoughts about money? If so, how long did your thoughts remain on money? Did you find yourself thinking about other, seemingly related themes, such as “I hope the rent check doesn’t bounce” or “I just can’t imagine how I am going to pay for two college tuitions?” Did you have any gut feelings, like anxiety or contentment about your retirement?
The late Indian scholar and teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati called this mushrooming of thought “BMW thinking.”As he describes below, a person walking down the street sees a someone driving a brand new new BMW: —
He jumps from one thought to another. The lingering content of the first thought connects him to the next thought. This connection causes him to catch the second thought and leave the first. Thus, we go from BMW to Germany. Germany takes you to World War II. World War II takes you to pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor takes you to Hawaii. Hawaii takes you to beach. The beach takes you to melanoma and you become sad. This how the mind works. If you catch one thought, it means the previous one is gone because the two thoughts have nothing to do with each other.”
needless despair and anxiety.
This mushrooming of thought often leads us into needless despair and anxiety. The sustained, patient practice of mindfulness of thoughts, that is, simply witnessing our own thoughts as they unfold freshly in the present moment, free of fear, excitement, or judgement, can free us from deeply conditioned patterns.
Let’s take a common example–I like the image Diana Winston uses – imagine a cartoon figure of a person having a distressing thought shown as a cartoon thought bubble in which we see the line “I am a failure at everything I do.”
Now imagine that mindfulness, the gentle and refined ability to be aware of whatever is happening in the present moment and is the core skill taught by the Buddha, is like a pin that gently pops this thought bubble.
In the moment of the popping of that thought bubble it’s as if we wake from a dream.
simply being with thoughts, this is mindfulness of thoughts
Mindfulness gives us the skill of seeing our natural thought-mushrooming tendencies, and to gently wake up to the present moment of simply being with what is unfolding freshly, free of proliferation, fear, dread or unbalanced excitement and agitation.
choose the right train of thought to take
It’s as if we were standing on a railroad platform waiting for a train — and a train we don’t need to take pulls slowly in, and we just watch it move by. Mindfulness of thoughts gives us this liberating freedom to see if it’s a train we need to take, and if it’s not we just watch it go by.
The problem is that in our minds this proliferation tendency is constantly presenting trains we don’t need to take, ones often heading in the wrong direction. It’s all happening in a mental fog — we just can’t see where they are headed and we just jump on. One after the other.
Enter the liberating power of mindfulness of thoughts!
the two monumental realizations in meditation
The first two monumental realizations in mindfulness practice come when you see you jumped on a train you don’t need to be on, and in this recognition of “thinking” you have the marvelous capacity to simply return to the station.
The second comes when you clearly see you don’t need to believe everything you think. Buddhists call this “non-identification.” We simply are not our thoughts.
That is, until we develop the wonderful skill of mindfulness of thoughts!
like clouds passing through an empty sky
With some practice you can see thoughts coming and going like clouds in the sky.
With more practice we may come to appreciate thoughts as friends in our mindfulness practice. The point of mindfulness is not to banish thoughts but rather to avoid maintaining chains of thought.
When our minds chill out a little and drop the conditioned reactions to thoughts that arise, we can recognize thought a as just movements of the mind. All thoughts are simply mind.
Just like waves of the ocean, thoughts are the natural movements of the mind.
the creative and freeing nature of the mind revealed
The late, dear Lama Gendun Rinpoche said in one of his talks with his students in France not long before his death:
“When we do not become fascinated by our thoughts but look at them directly, then all of our thoughts become opportunities for recognizing the simultaneously creative and empty nature of the mind.”
And a recognition like this can free us from all distress.
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