Meditation teachers have a habit of telling people what to do with — or about — their thoughts. Psychologists and self-help gurus do this too. Thoughts, however, are rather mysterious. Scientists can’t really say exactly what they are or how they’re formed. And whilst we all intuitively know what a thought is, it’s almost impossible to find a definition that isn’t circular, or somehow inadequate.
Given this basic lack of understanding, whose advice should we follow? Who has the right to tell us what to do within the privacy of our own minds?
“Just think positively,” shout one crowd.
“That’ll never work,” retort the naysayers.
And meditation teachers give you the maddening and contradictory advice to gently acknowledge thoughts — but to escort your attention back to the breath as soon as you notice them. They might also spout platitudes such as “thoughts are just thoughts,” to which some might be tempted to reply: “and this is just my fist in your face!”
What’s a thinking person to do? Does it even matter?
Well yes, it matters. Thoughts may be invisible (just tiny electrical impulses firing off inside your brain) but they can certainly pack a punch.
Try these two on for size:
- He loves me. He’s about to pop the question!
- He doesn’t love me. He’s seeing that other woman.
Now, unless you’re a sociopath, each of these phrases probably triggered different physical and emotional responses? At least, they would if they were thoughts of your own, and just not words on a page.
But is that inevitable?
What if it was your longtime boyfriend you were thinking about?
Now say it was a complete stranger.
Does the impact of each phrase change — given this additional context?
Or perhaps you can recall a thought that kept you up all night, but by 7 am it hardly seemed worth considering? Same thought. Different response.
These simple thought experiments suggest that thoughts don’t have intrinsic meaning. Thoughts, in essence, aren’t positive or negative. They only develop a charge when we attribute some meaning to them.
In other words, thoughts are just words and pictures in your head. The trouble starts when you believe them to be truths, facts or orders from within, instead of simply as data.
Depending on the relationship you have with your thoughts, this could sound either obvious or ridiculous.
Regardless, the fact remains the same: you don’t have to believe the stories that pop into your head. It’s not God in there speaking to you.
As far as we know, thoughts are just neurons firing off within your brain. And, rather bizarrely, that firing occurs before you know what you’re thinking about. In other words, you think your thoughts before you know you thunked them. If that’s screwing with your mind, please be advised that it should.
In fact, this is good news, because it means that you are not at fault for the thoughts you think. They just happen, almost completely out of your control.
If you think bad thoughts that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
If you visualise yourself chopping a relative into little bits, that doesn’t mean you’re evil.
And just as there’s no rule that says you have to believe what the Bible — or Donald Trump — says, there’s no rule that says you have to believe what you say, or what your brain says to you.
You have the right to reject, accept, or question any thought that comes along. And you don’t have to act upon any of them.
This, in fact, is exactly what you practice every time you meditate. You sit down and (for the most part), listen to a bunch of stories — and you do precisely nothing about them. You just let them babble away.
Sure, you can witness or observe them if you like. You can play at being all detached and equanimous. You can try to block them out, or to simply acknowledge them. You can visualise them like leaves on a stream, or clouds in the sky, or floats at the Mardi Gras. But what strategy you adopt doesn’t really matter. Meditation can be thought of as an opportunity to think and not react. Yes. Yes. I know. There are those that say meditation is not about thinking at all. Those folks obviously think way too much.
Anyway, when those wrinkly old sages say “Don’t just do something, sit there” that’s what they mean. And those Zen folk — with their fondness for paradox — created a whole practice called zazen, which means essentially the same thing: sit silently, do nothing. People these days talk about developing your powers of concentration, as though meditation were a 10kg dumbbell and your brain was a bicep. Or they talk about your neuroplastic brain, and how you can rewire your head. Basically though, we’re all talking about jack shit. Or, more precisely, doing jack shit. And funnily enough, that’s why meditation works. It trains you to do jack shit about the shit in your head. There are probably more eloquent, and more scientific ways of saying that. Unfortunately, you won’t find them here.
Now, just sitting might not sound all that profound, but it’s helpful advice, because now you don’t have to worry so much about finding the correct technique, or doing ‘it’ right. You can just do nothing, knowing that that’s the most important part of any meditation practice.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, you can now forget about trying to sugarcoat every worry that enters your head. You don’t even need to look for the silver lining. You can simply treat your thoughts like postmen, (or should be that postpeople) delivering up a variety of personally curated tidbits of information on the world, your work colleagues, mothers-in-law and your chances of having sex in the next year. Some of that information might not necessarily be to your liking, but you get to choose how to respond. And that’s a bargain.
So how do you respond? What if a really ugly brute shows up inside your head, brandishing a sword and shouting curses? This character might demand your full attention and you might, quite naturally, want to banish him for the duration of his natural life. You might prefer a perfumed princess bearing sweet words and a picnic basket. Whilst this is natural, neither of these two strategies (stopping thinking and wishful thinking) — which we tend to implement by default — are likely to be very helpful. We don’t need to be so bothered by such thoughts. They are like boys crying wolf! In meditation, you can practice doing nothing: not responding, letting them pass, letting them flow, suspending judgment. You can engage with them with a gentle matter-of-factness, like a doctor examining a rectal cavity. But it all amounts to the same thing. Do nothing.
This, of course, is easier said than done. Thoughts have a certain gravity to them. They can be like black holes. Once you get caught there’s no getting loose. Thoughts, however, are not really the problem. Thoughts get their charge — whether positive or negative — because they’re usually accompanied by emotions. Emotions, in turn, manifest as physiological changes: a pounding heart, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, butterflies in the tummy, feeling giddy, getting hot under the collar.
So what’s really happening in meditation is that you are learning how to tolerate stress at a physiological level. That’s what doing nothing means. That’s how you do nothing.
Dressing up a thought is just denial. But buying into a thought is a form of denial too. Trying to manipulate the truth in either direction leads you down a slippery slope, because any form of manipulation reinforces the belief that thoughts are facts: that they are true, and must be believed. This turns a simple — and largely random — electrical impulse into the boss of you.
You can avoid this trap by not buying into any thought, whether it’s positive or negative. Instead, you just let the thought register. And if you like, you can take it a step further and investigate the thought. You might ask:
- Is it comprised of ‘voices’ in your head? Or images? Or both?
- Does the thought feel pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?
- Is it accompanied by some emotion?
- If emotions are present, how do you experience them? As sensations in your body? As a tone of voice?
It is not necessary to try to think positively. We all have our crap days and our negative thinking patterns, but sugar-coating them doesn’t make them taste any sweeter. It’s sufficient just to recognise that negative thoughts are usually distortions of the truth. You don’t have to believe them. Besides, deep down any positive spin is just that. It’s false. A lie.
There are therapies designed around challenging negative thoughts. These strategies can sometimes be helpful. However, when you buy into the idea that you need to do something about your thoughts, you also buy into the idea that they’re somehow dangerous. You inadvertently give them more power.
There are also many who recommend the recitation of affirmations or deliberate positive thinking. It amounts to the same: an unquestioning belief in the power of thoughts to throw you off balance. And if you believe in the power of positive thoughts, you also must believe in the power of negative thoughts, so you’ll have to be permanently on watch, just in case a negative thought should come visiting; which it inevitably will.
This is where the radical and counter-intuitive do-nothing approach may serve you well. Over time, by studiously not reacting to each thought that visits, you lessen their capacity to throw you off balance.
Of course, natural optimism and genuinely positive thoughts may visit too. Such thoughts can be enjoyed. They’re like the tasty fruits of your mind; wholesome and nutritious. You can gobble them up knowing that they won’t make you sick.