We all have times when we wish we could find that magic ‘off’ switch that would instantly make our minds to go silent. Embodied practices of the kinds I’ve been talking about in previous weeks are not the silver bullet that we sometimes hope they could be; just trying to put all of your attention into physical sensation isn’t always enough to prise it away from the compelling and mesmerising contents of the mind.
This is the situation I found myself dealing with after a bit of a hiatus from being distracted by the machinations of the mind. I’ve spent the last few weeks really focusing on being present and not engaging with my experience using thoughts, which has created a noticeable decrease in thinking over all, but it still doesn’t stop me from getting drawn into the vortex of thinking at times.
Even though we can know that thoughts are not self, impersonal, and just processes, that in itself isn’t enough to stop us from getting taken in by them at times. When we get too close to something we can lose perspective, and that can be what it feels like to get caught up in our thoughts sometimes; we are standing so close to them that we can’t even see that they are thoughts, and that stops us from being able to apply the knowledge and insight we already have.
Even when we are utterly convinced that thinking is a waste of time we can still get caught up in it, so we need to not forget our basic tactics for dealing with the errant mind. I’ve been doing a lot of investigation into phenomenon and sensation recently which has skewed my initial responses to thoughts and feelings towards analysing them, but analysis is often a counterproductive approach to take with thoughts. When we are able to take a step back from the content of our thoughts, we remember that the best thing to do is to just let them go, but when we are caught up in the middle of the thinking process we often need a trick or a method to help us to make a bit of space between us and the thoughts.
There are many ways to do this, but one particular technique I have been using lately is to classify my thoughts into four different categories. This helps me to stop focusing on the content of the thought, and once I have done that it becomes much easier to let it go. But I can’t take much credit for this idea, putting thoughts into categories is a technique that the Buddha himself used in his practice before he reached enlightenment. In MN2, the Buddha explains how he split his thoughts into not four, but two categories:
Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, it occurred to me: ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will, and thoughts of non-cruelty.
As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of sensual desire arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of sensual desire has arisen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.’ When I considered: ‘This leads to my own affliction,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This leads to others’ affliction,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This leads to the affliction of both,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna,’ it subsided in me. Whenever a thought of sensual desire arose in me, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it.https://suttacentral.net/mn19 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi
Now this practice sounds really simple, asking ourselves if we are having a ‘good’ thought or a ‘bad’ one, but when I have tried this in the past I found it anything but easy. Some thoughts are straightforwardly skilful or unskilful, but I discovered that I had a huge swathe of thoughts that I just couldn’t figure out where they fitted. For instance, if I remembered I wanted to add eggs to my shopping list, was this an unskilful thought or not? Was there some kind of third category of neutral, useless, and trivial thoughts? In the end I had to stop using this practice because I realised that I was spending more and more time trying to figure out which thought went into which category, and not really getting any distance between me and my thinking mind.
The bit that was tripping me up the most was the ‘good’ thoughts’ having the scope to decide that a thought ‘might’ be good left me pouring over all kinds of permutations of whether the thought I just had could ultimately be classed as a good thought or a bad one. I got to the point where I decided that since I couldn’t figure it out, it was probably easier to just try to not allow any kind of thought to stay too long in my mind, good or bad. In the same sutta the Buddha points out that he also decided it was better ultimately to not think either type of thought, although he pointed out that the benefit of this was for a different reason:
As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of non-ill will arose in me…a thought of non-cruelty arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of non-cruelty has arisen in me. This does not lead to my own affliction, or to others’ affliction, or to the affliction of both; it aids wisdom, does not cause difficulties, and leads to Nibbāna. If I think and ponder upon this thought even for a night, even for a day, even for a night and day, I see nothing to fear from it. But with excessive thinking and pondering I might tire my body, and when the body is tired, the mind becomes strained, and when the mind is strained, it is far from concentration.’ So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness, and concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind should not be strained.https://suttacentral.net/mn19 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi
All kinds of thinking, good or bad, are ultimately tiring and will disturb our peace of mind, so tucked unobtrusively into this sutta the Buddha subtly tells us that we should eventually try to let go of the process as much as possible.
This sutta isn’t the only place in the Pali canon that we find the application of categories to our thoughts, this is a common feature in both the suttas and other supporting texts like the abhidhamma. Particular types of thoughts and feelings often have instructions on which condition to cultivate to counteract them, or directions on what practice to use on them. For example the Sabbāsava Sutta identifies different types of thoughts, and tells us that the right way to deal with them is by letting them go as soon as they arise:
What taints, bhikkhus, should be abandoned by removing? Here a bhikkhu, reflecting wisely, does not tolerate an arisen thought of sensual desire; he abandons it, removes it, does away with it, and annihilates it. He does not tolerate an arisen thought of ill will…He does not tolerate an arisen thought of cruelty…He does not tolerate arisen evil unwholesome states; he abandons them, removes them, does away with them, and annihilates them. While taints, vexation, and fever might arise in one who does not remove these thoughts, there are no taints, vexation, or fever in one who removes them. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by removing.https://suttacentral.net/mn2 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi
The categories of thoughts in this sutta I found easier to work with because it is much simpler and there aren’t any counterpart wholesome thoughts to try to discern. I just need to ask myself: ‘is this sensual desire, is this ill will, is this cruel, is this unwholesome?’ Much as we want to be little rays of sunshine, realistically the majority of our thoughts are pretty unskilful in one way or another, and even well practiced Buddhists will have petty, ill will laden thoughts at times – especially on retreat! – so only having these categories to identify covers most of what we will be dealing with. None of us are perfect, and when we are working on our thoughts we need to embrace that fact because if we let ideas about how we ‘should’ be seep into our practice we will start having a lot of thoughts of ill will towards ourselves at how mean we can be at times.
What I find useful about MN2 is that it is also a very concise reminder that the contents of our thoughts only matter up to the point that we can identify them as unskilful, and as soon as that has been established we let go of the thought completely. Analysing our thoughts is a habit that has perhaps leeched into the mainstream from philosophy or from the therapy work, but it is a habit that we need to break out of if we want to really loosen up the grip of thinking on our minds. When we analyse a thought we are in fact just doing more thinking, and obviously thinking about thinking isn’t going to do much to help us to stop thinking. Reflection on a thought though, some time after the fact, is a different thing. By that point we are less bound to the thought we were clinging to, and we can bring a more rational approach to both the content of the thoughts and the wider process of thoughts and thinking.
This brings me to my own four kinds of thinking which I shaped based on a quick survey of the thoughts I most commonly experience. This is entirely personal to me and the inside of my head, and that is what makes it work so well for me – I don’t need to think much at all about which category a thought goes into because the categories are tailored to me. You might recognise some of the categories in your own thinking, but if you do want to try this I would recommend making it 100% your own by creating your own categories.
The contents of my thoughts most often fell into these categories: mythologising (telling stories about myself, sometimes quite fantastical, often incredibly mundane), bitching (griping about this, that, him, her, or myself), plotting and planning (as the name suggests, endless calculations and permutations about how I am going to do this, get this, get there, etc.) and jukeboxing (any outbreak of music in my head). Perhaps you can see why it is so important to embrace the reality of your imperfections in these categories, if I could only come up with categories based on what I ‘should’ be thinking then I would have something that didn’t tally up with my experience at all, and would therefore be ineffective.
I told some dhamma friends about these categories and one was amazed that anyone could have music in their head – I was equally amazed that anyone couldn’t have music in their head! This just goes to show how different we all are, and why it is so important to work out our own foibles; we can’t just assume that other people will know what it is like in our head and that their teachings or suggestions will work for us, we need to know the lay of our own land and figure out what it is that we need to work with what is in our own particular mind. There is something really powerful about finding how to put our experiences into our own words too that can take make a big difference to how well it works for us.
The categories in my mind aren’t actually that different to the ones in MN2; mythologising is sensual desire (in the sense of wanting a self, or bhava tanha, craving to become), bitching is obviously ill will, plotting and planning is desire again (especially the very particular desire of wanting things to turn out ‘just so’), and jukeboxing is chasing after pleasant feelings – desire again. But put into my own words I find it much easier to know which thought goes where, and being able to trace them back to the original unwholesome mind states keeps me close to the teachings, protecting me from branching out into my own practice wonderland that could take me off in the wrong direction.
Now when I look back on why I struggled to get much out of the two kinds of thoughts practice I understand that some important experiences hadn’t been fully established yet. I wasn’t as ready to let go of thinking back then, and I was still going through a process of trying to work out if there was anything useful in the thinking process. I already knew Ajahn Chah’s exhortation that ‘everything you think is garbage’, but at that point I was still investigating the nature of thoughts and I just didn’t know enough about them. Now I know that thoughts are just the output of an impersonal process, just objects in our experience, free from self, a cause of suffering – and yes, as Ajahn Chah said, they are largely a load of rubbish. This makes it much easier to let go of a thought – once I have seen that it is a thought. The main issue I have now is being able to step back from the thinking process to recognise that I am in the middle of thinking, the thoughts themselves are not that important any more.
That is why this kind of categorisation technique works better for me now than it did the first time I tried using it; I am not trying to analyse the contents of the thoughts anymore, they are all just brain noise to me now. What I am trying to do now is to spot thoughts quickly, and then chuck them away. So I notice what the noise in my head is saying – ‘oh god, I can’t believe he done that, didn’t he check with someone first?’, then I can categorise it – ‘you’re bitching’, then I just let it go.
What this process does is disrupt the momentum of thinking from snowballing into a much bigger, angrier, bitchier, proliferation which from experience can last anything up to several weeks, although fortunately I generally don’t stay angry with someone for much longer than an hour these days. Once the thinking process has lost a bit of its gravitational pull, it is easier to step back and reframe the experience. Having spotted that I have been thinking, I can remind myself that these thoughts are not me and they are not mine (and they’re not skilful), and if I hold onto them I will cause suffering for myself and for others. Letting go of the thought is easier now, after making these reflections there is no reason for me to hold onto it; and if I do think about the same thing again I just need to remind myself of the reflections I have already made.
Of course when you feel like you should know better than to fall into these kinds of simple mistakes like getting totally overwhelmed by a train of thought or not even noticing that you are thinking, sometimes having to go back to the basics can feel like you have done something wrong somewhere down the line. You can sometimes end up wondering to yourself if your previously good practice has gone completely off the rails, but personally I don’t think we should be overly concerned if we still find ourselves tripping over simple stuff at times.
An interesting sutta about a monk called Khemaka gives us some encouragement that even when we understand the teachings it isn’t unusual for us to still get drawn into the illusions at times. Khemaka is ill, and his fellow monks say that they hope he is well but he replies that he is not. They try to get him to reflect on his experience through the lens of the teachings and talk to him about the five khandas to help him to feel better. But he explains to them that while he knows completely that the five khandas are not self, he still has times when he experiences the khandas as self:
These five aggregates subject to clinging have been spoken of by the Blessed One; that is, the form aggregate subject to clinging … the consciousness aggregate subject to clinging. I do not regard anything among these five aggregates subject to clinging as self or as belonging to self, yet I am not an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed. Friends, the notion ‘I am’ has not yet vanished in me in relation to these five aggregates subject to clinging, but I do not regard anything among them as ‘This I am.’https://suttacentral.net/sn22.89 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi
The notion that ‘I am’ still hasn’t fully been eradicated in Khemaka, it still lingers as a deep rooted tendency, so even though he knows the khandas he is experiencing are not in any way self, he does still feel suffering at times because there is a little part of him that still clings to the idea of being a self. Khemaka isn’t unusual either, this is something we will all have right up until the point that we complete the process of enlightenment. While we knock off the big chunks of self view earlier on in the process of our development, the very subtle remnants of this long standing habit (one we have had for thousands of lifetimes, the Buddha says) will continue lurking around under the surface until all of our defilements have finally been removed.
The reality of practice is that no matter how good we think we are, or how close to the end we have gotten, we will still make mistakes, painfully obvious and basic mistakes at that too – only enlightenment will bring that to an end. So we need to stay on our toes and keep watching our mind, complacency can leave us open to making simple mistakes and finding ourselves in situations that we really do know better than to get into. But I’d say don’t beat yourself up about it if you do fall for one of the mind’s old tricks, just remind yourself that you are not enlightened yet and that you can’t expect to get it right all the time, and go back into your toolkit for your tried and tested techniques that will get you back on track again. Mistakes are as much a part of the learning process as success is.