Most of us, by the time we reach adult life, develop ways of relating to the obsessive thoughts that visit us; those inner voices that relentlessly detail bleak tales about the future, mistakes made in the past, inventories of what's missing from life. The brain’s set up to fret, and we all have to learn how to function in life without being dragged under by its constant jabbering. Despite these self-destructive tendencies, all we're after is a little peace of mind.
While we may understand that certain types of thoughts cause us a lot of stress, it’s less obvious that the mind's tendency to jump around, from one inner narrative to the next, plays a large part in our suffering. The mind doesn't generally roam in search of peace. The brain's subsystems that activate our impulses tend to reward us for cogitation about issues that effect our survival, from whether or not we'll ever find a lasting relationship, to attempting to predict our unknowable financial futures. Our thoughts promise us control and preparation, yet what they actually deliver is stress and suffering.
So many of us weather the mind's inner storms and agitated movements by distracting it with external events—we divert our attentions to the dramas of work, world events, relationships, families, what's on television. Some of us choose the numbing effects of alcohol or other intoxicants. Still others choose the “Move a muscle, change a thought' solution, by engaging in daily physical exertions that flood the brain with endorphins, buying us a little mental quiet. Relatively few choose a solution that’s always available, costs nothing, exploits no one, and has been proven safe and in numerous clinical studies: meditation and mindfulness. (I have lots of new research info from Duke because I just attended their 5 day retreat and the researchers came in with MRI studies, etc. Amazing!)
Perhaps we don't naturally choose to meditate at first because it’s a skill that takes quite a lot of practice before it provides reliable relief. Anybody can get drunk and make the struggles of a difficult day almost immediately vanish from consciousness; unfortunately the relief is only for a short duration. Meditation at first is challenging and doesn't provide the effortless results we crave. It takes patient practice to develop it to the point where we can hit the cushion and expect mental quiet to ensue. But it does work.
This is a practice wherein we can learn how to detach from our unskillful ideations. Detachment, it should be noted, doesn't mean we must stop thinking during meditation—a commonly held misapprehension of the dhamma. The Buddha's practices of yoniso manasikara (appropriate attention) and dhamma vicaya (investigation of mental phenomena) require using our meditation as a time to investigate thoughts from the outside. The foundation of this viewing thoughts from a distance, or detachment, is achieved through the practice of anchoring our awareness on the breath and body and maintaining awareness of how each mental occurrence effects these life sustaining events, no matter what arises in mind. So we notice how every thought effects the depth and pace of the breath, the flow of the breath energy in the body. We also pay close attention to the localization of feelings in the body associated with each thought (in my case, fear stories are accompanied by a tight stomach, anger a clenched jaw, anxiousness results in shoulders straining upwards). This focus on the body results in us having at least part of the mind outside of the thought's contents—keeping a foot out the door, so to speak.
Long exhalations achieved in meditation also trip the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve, which counters the stress responses of the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system. Hence our thoughts appear with less physical tension behind them, making them easier to detach from. This is why people suffering from panic attacks are always told to breathe.
Once we’ve developed a little distance from thoughts, it’s good to discern which thoughts are helpful, and which are detrimental. So we start by developing a disengaged wariness towards all the ideas that visit us. This is easier to achieve if we realize they're not our thoughts. Thoughts are memes, ideas floating around in the world that are eventually internalized: by nature the brain is an imitation machine, primed to imitate, latching on to what other people say, the behaviors that others enact. We rarely produce anything new "upstairs," we simply slap old ideas into a different phrasing and call it ours. (If you want to learn more about one theory of how the process works, explore the works of Michel Foucault, and his conception of the épistémè, or Richard Dawkins theory of the meme.)
Thoughts are like inner door to door salespeople: each thought is trying to get us to fork over attention and time. Much of the time they're selling something we don't really need: how we must avoid something that's inevitable and necessary, such as loss and aging, how we must cling to something that's fleeting, like physical beauty or sensual pleasures. Once we've started to view thoughts as not our own, as visitors, we can start asking questions:
Is this voice or person really offering me something in my long term best interest?
• Would someone who cared about me talk to me this way?
• Would I feel comfortable if people could hear the thought I'm thinking right now?
• Knowing death can occur at any time, would I be happy if this was the last thought I had?
• Are there any harmful intentions masquerading behind these ideas?
It’s helpful to be deeply suspicious towards my inner Yes Men, those voices that immediately justify our every action, even when it’s unskillful. These are not friendly voices. Many people have met ruinous ends because they've been surrounded by enablers, and yet we all listen to these inner backslappers and brownnosers as if they have our best interests at heart. The Buddha had a different view: "If you find someone who points out your faults and encourages you to do better, you should follow that wise instructor as if they were guiding you to a hidden treasure" (Dhp. 76)." Also, over time we learn to be weary of inner judges who find other people wanting, especially since we've seen how empowering such outlooks means their ire will inevitably turn on our own vulnerabilities.
Meditation is not only seeing which thoughts are harmful; it’s also learning to empower thoughts that are skillful. Such thoughts build up esteem by focusing on our skillful actions, rather than through comparing us with others. Wise ideas tell us when we're doing something wrong but don't beat up on us. They propose actions that make us feel virtuous and help us see the long term results of our actions. It's important to hold onto these sources of wisdom, and we can use our mediation to reflect with gratitude on the wisdom we've developed in life. We cherish the results when we follow through via acts of generosity and virtue. Finally, once we've done the work of identifying which thoughts are in our best interest and which aren't, we can practice a little metta to cap off our efforts. Metta is the intentional development of good will in the mind. It’s the act of wishing true happiness for ourselves and others. Such thoughts are never selfish or unskillful, for true happiness comes from within, exploits no one, and pollutes nothing. When we wish true peace for all beings, we're developing thoughts that cause no stress or suffering and, at the end of the day, that's what spiritual practice is all about. We can realize the goal of making the mind and body a peaceful place for us to spend our days.