Last week, I signed up to take a class in a subject that greatly interested me. But today, as the day of the class drew near, the thought went through my mind, “Why did you sign up for this?” The class would demand considerable attention and necessitate driving to a near-by city. I chose to take this class; there was no force or compulsion involved, just a desire to learn. Yet, suddenly, I was “at two minds” about it.
Our minds can be so bizarre. Sometimes, thoughts, images, or feelings that seem to have nothing to do with me can appear in my mind and dance around inside me, act out some drama, and then disappear.
Some thoughts I can understand, like thinking about a project I am working on or a past event that concerned me or trying to understand a painful sensation in my body. But I’ve also had images of mysterious dogs walk through my mind. I’ve walked in space, seen stones levitate, watched people I don’t know argue about what to cook for dessert ⎼ all produced by my imagination in the theatre of my mind. This morning as I woke up, an image of a garage band popped into mind, and I don’t have either a garage or any inclination to play music.
Buddhists talk about “monkey mind” or how the mind leaps about like a monkey in the trees. This monkey or where he comes from is a mystery we all partake in.
We could enjoy all this creative drama except sometimes thoughts hurt or confuse us. We feel hurt by thoughts about people disliking us or we imagine others condemning us for not saying hello or missing a friend’s birthday. Or we condemn ourselves for not being brave enough to take a political action or falling asleep while meditating.
It would be great if we could just ignore such thoughts, (and sometimes we need to do so) but it’s not so easy. And a thought ignored can grow in size and fearsomeness by the energy of denial. Just like when we are confronted with a monster in our dreams, if we run away the monster grows in size and chases us. But if we look straight at it and hold our ground, the monster changes into something smaller in size, more familiar, and it slinks away.
And there are times that the actors in these wandering side shows in our mind actually have important truths to share with us, if we can take the time to listen clearly.
So, how do we understand and deal with thoughts that just pop into our heads?
Knowing Ourselves Directly with Mindfulness
Mindfulness is one such method for dealing with our thoughts. It is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the world around us. We develop it through different daily practices. Such practices provide a methodology and curriculum for educating ourselves about the workings of our own mind and of how we relate to the world.
For example, sit up comfortably, close your eyes partly or fully, and turn your awareness to your breath or your hands resting in your lap. Gently notice how your body or your hands feel as you breathe in and then breathe out. If any thoughts arise, notice them, then let them go as you return attention to the breath.
Only by calming our mind and hearing our thoughts or seeing the imagery coursing through our mind can we exercise some choice about what we do with them. We can then make the best out of our experiences and are more likely to be helpful to others and less likely to cause pain.
And this also works in reverse ⎼ the more pain we cause others, the noisier our mind tends to be.
Our Theories and Beliefs About Ourselves Affect How Much of the World We Perceive
Our thoughts are part of the process of using language and imagination to integrate, organize and make sense of our experiences. We can learn more about this process by researching cognitive behavioral therapy, thought distortions, and common ways our brains bias perception and thinking. We can study the role the human brain played in our evolution, enabling us to survive even when confronted with other bigger and stronger species. Our thoughts and imagination give us the amazing power to see in our mind what doesn’t yet exist and hear symphonies not yet written.
Yet this amazing mental ability to imagine works of art and technology that don’t yet exist also allows us to imagine threats that don’t exist. When our thoughts and images are misunderstood, they can take us in harmful directions. Psychologists talk about a negativity bias; we are too ready think of the world in negative terms and we do so in order to prepare ourselves to face any tough situation that might arise.
Another common bias that can make it difficult to perceive the harm that we do to ourselves and others is a confirmation bias. If we believe human beings are by nature untrustworthy, we are more likely to see evidence that confirms that bias and to ignore what might contradict it.
Our beliefs about the nature of reality and the human mind greatly influence the nature of our thoughts and how much and what we learn from them. If we think of a thought as the absolute truth, then we don’t question it when it arises. If we look not only at the content of a thought but at the situation that gave birth to it, we are more likely to respond to it appropriately. Do we listen, learn, and then let the thought go? Or do we hold on to it and define ourselves by it?
A thought is mind being mind. Just as our skin is a point of separation and distinction that makes touching possible, a thought is also a point of contact. It is not something to hoard or possess but an expression of how our lives are infinitely interwoven with everything around us and arise in response to what surrounds us. Some thoughts are just random material our minds pick up. We can hear, see, feel, smell, even taste things without being consciously aware of doing so. And then later this material can just show up as a thought or memory to be recognized. If we see someone in pain, most of us have thoughts and images of actions we could take to stop it.
Our understanding of the world is never complete but constantly in motion. A thought can provide an opportunity to prepare for a real situation or it can expose a deeper reality. If we repeat a thought that leaps into mind we reinforce it and make it more likely to appear again. But if we are aware of a thought, we can question and re-interpret it as well as let it go.
As with the class I mentioned to begin this piece ⎼ to take a class requires effort and energy. The reluctance I felt as the day of the class approached might have been one way to interpret the effort needed to get there or point out motives for taking the class that I had not acknowledged.
One moment we feel the effort we must expend to do something. The next moment, we feel the joy. To take a step forward, we press down against the earth. To think of “right” we create “left.” To learn, we must be open; it requires that to some degree we make ourselves vulnerable. When we’re vulnerable, we can be hurt, or we can feel excited. The possibility of being hurt is woven into the excitement. A conscious thought usually has an unconscious and opposite one built in.
We can ask ourselves: which interpretation of this event best fits the facts or teaches us the most about ourselves and others? Which interpretation makes us stronger or kinder?
So, what do we notice and tell ourselves? How and if we bring a thought into the light affects what and how much we hide in the dark. If we resent or fight against hearing what our mind is saying, we turn our mind into a threat. However, if we treat the arising of a thought as an opportunity to learn something new, then our mind, our very life, becomes an opportunity.
I think I’d prefer to think of my life as an opportunity, not a threat. Wouldn’t you?