Thoughts are incredibly powerful. They are at the root of all human happiness and misery in this world. Most people are completely unaware of their thoughts. Perceiving themselves as the thinker they are lost within fabricating endless scenarios in their heads all day and night. Some people are aware of their brain-movies but have a hard time detaching from them. In this article I am discussing thoughts and how to deal with overthinking.
Before we get started I want to make absolutely clear that thoughts exist. They play a major role in the way we perceive this world and interact with ourselves and others. Nowadays it has become quite popular in spiritual circles to negate or downplay thoughts. We might often be confronted with statements such as “thoughts are an illusion” or “you must get rid of thoughts in meditation practice”. These statements might be correct or incorrect depending on the circumstances and the context. However, concerning the nature of thoughts I would like to clarify something important. Thoughts exist! They are not an illusion as such, they are illusion-like.
A magician and his magic trick exist, they are not illusions. The trick however appears in a way that doesn’t correspond with reality. In a very similar way, our thoughts appear and exist, but they don’t exist in the same way they appear. They usually appear as permanent and solid, trustworthy and absolutely true to us. Furthermore they often appear as being an element that belongs or pertains to a thought-made concept of “me” or “I”. This is not how thoughts actually exist. They are instead impermanent and ethereal, conditioned by culture, experiences, upbringing etc.
Since they exist as a causal phenomenon, they condition our feelings and our sense of self. They determine our actions and how we react our experience of this world. Skillful thoughts are at the root of skillful actions. Skillful actions create happiness, well-being and peace within yourself – and likely within those who are in contact with you. Unskillful thoughts create unhappy and miserable outcomes both for yourself and others. It is therefore our responsibility to let go of unskillful mental states and cultivate skillful ones. Start with this practice in your own mind.
At the base of dealing with our thoughts there should always be the element of mindfulness. Cultivate mindfulness by practicing meditation regularly and by finding moments of stillness throughout the day. Stop and take a few conscious breaths every now and then. Increase the practice gradually and slowly, let it grow naturally and have fun with it. Take your time. It is very important to learn observing yourself without tension – in a relaxed and soft way. Look at your breath, your thoughts and yourself with kindness. Once you get better at observing your thoughts, you can move on to your feeling-tone.
The feeling-tone can either be pleasant, painful or neutral. It’s easy to tell if you are in either one of these states. Learn to be conscious of your body and see how you are what your emotional state is like. You will gradually start to notice that the way you feel is often conditioned by the way you think. But stay with your feeling-tone for a while. Do this frequently throughout the day until you become more familiar with your general emotional states. Once you get more skilled at that, move on to thoughts and other mental states.
Now when you are observing thoughts, you have to soften your eye of awareness. Please make sure to look at your thoughts, feelings and your body through the lens of kindness at first. Allow yourself to feel, think and experience this moment as you usually do. We often tend to watch ourselves too aggressively, expecting “results”, pushing ourselves. From my own experience I can share with you that nothing is as important as learning to RELAX and have fun when doing the practice. “Play the path” – as my teacher sometimes says. Being serious and uptight, expecting this and that will gradually increase internal pressure and often leads to spiritual exhaustion and breakdowns. Did you know that many meditators suffer from silent depression because they miss this important point of kindness?
Meditation practice is often a result of the things we hear, read, study and find ourselves surrounded by. This might be great but it could be devastating as well. Through the years I have met with people who have been influenced by instructions such as “you should not think“ or “just be”. All of them where in a state of great confusion or denial. They were using spiritual practice as a means of avoiding important issues. For most of us thoughts have fabricated entire spiritual worlds, full of ideas, convictions, opinions and conceptions. Many are hopelessly lost, when it comes to deeper aspects of the practice. Without proper guidance, they are lost in the world of book-knowledge, internet-gurus and opinions.
So instead of fabricating more ideas, opinions and concepts I am pointing to that which is aware of fabrication. When you practice properly under the guidance of an experienced teacher and stick to the technique, you will gradually learn to release the aspect of fabrication. This doesn’t imply that you should get rid of it – it simply means that you discover awareness as existing above it. Fabrication is a very natural aspect of the mind and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it. There’s nothing wrong with a car as such. But if you put a drunk driver behind the wheel, the car becomes very dangerous.
Detaching from fabrication is a bit like loosing interest in it. Neither trying to get rid of it nor holding on to it you can enjoy the freedom from mental states. Letting go means that you are not invested anymore because it’s not worth the stress and the time. It’s just like a dog that’s scared of his own tail. He starts attacking it, barking and biting furiously. Then there’s this sudden realization that he’s literally fighting himself. That’s the end of the problem right there 😉
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Tobi has been studying and practicing meditation since 2002. He stayed 7 years in a Tibetan Buddhist Temple and currently lives in Thailand where he founded the Dharana Meditation and Retreat Center in Phuket with his wife Parn. In Thailand he continued his practice and found a spiritual home within local Theravada Buddhism. Tobi is known for an open and relaxed teaching style focusing mainly on a practical application of mindfulness meditation within a modern society. The direct experience of what the practical teachings point to is of foremost importance to him.