day three : afternoon

Distracting Thoughts

Yesterday we talked about how to deal with pain in meditation. Today I would like to talk about how to deal with distracting thoughts. The Buddha lists five different methods.

All of them require that you first set your intention straight. You have to remind yourself that you really do want to free yourself from the distracting thoughts. If you can’t at least start with this intention, none of the methods will work. So these five methods are examples of skillful kamma in the present.

• The first method: If you see your mind thinking about something unskillful, simply bring it back to a more skillful topic. For example, if you’ve been focusing on the breath and suddenly find yourself thinking about food, simply drop the thought of food and come back to the breath. And allow yourself a particularly comfortable breath to reinforce your desire to stay here.

This particular method also includes using specific topics of meditation to act as antidotes for specific types of unskillful thinking. If, for instance, you find yourself thinking a thought of anger, try to think in a way that cures the anger, such as thoughts of goodwill—goodwill for yourself, realizing that you’re harming yourself with your thoughts of anger; goodwill for the other person, realizing that you don’t gain anything from wishing that person ill—and then come back to the breath. Another example: You are suddenly thinking about somebody’s body. The antidote is to think about taking your own body apart, imagining all the different parts inside, and then do the same in your imagination with the other person’s body. Imagine putting all the different parts in separate piles on the floor. Then ask yourself which part you are attracted to. When you survey all the parts and see nothing to attract you, come back to the breath. That’s the first method.

• If the first method doesn’t work, focus on the drawbacks of that unskillful thought. At the same time, ask yourself: What is the allure of that thought? What kind of food do you think you’re getting from it? Then ask yourself: What are the drawbacks of thinking that thought? What sort of mind states does it lead to? When you see that the drawbacks outweigh the allure, then you can let the thought go. This is called using appropriate attention with the thought.

One technique that I’ve found that works is, if you find yourself with a thought that you’ve been thinking many times, tell yourself it’s like watching an old movie. Ask yourself: Would you pay money to watch this movie? The acting is horrible, the lighting and the photography are horrible, and as they say in Thailand, the story is a stagnant water story. In other words, it’s the same thing over and over and over again, so you should be sick of it. That should help do away with any attraction to that thought. With thoughts that attract you more strongly, ask yourself: If you were to think that thought for twenty-four hours, what kind of behavior would it lead to? If you realize it would involve something you wouldn’t really want to do, then it’s easier to let go of the thought. That’s the second method.

• The third method, if the first two methods don’t work, is simply to allow that thought to be in your mind, but you are not going to pay any attention to it. Think of it as a crazy person. If a crazy person tries to get your attention and you respond to the crazy person, you’re going to get pulled into a crazy person’s conversation and involved in a crazy person’s thought world. Even if you try to drive the crazy person away, the crazy person has you. So, just pretend that the crazy person is not there. You continue doing your work. The crazy person will say things that are more and more outrageous, but if you’re firm in paying him no attention, after a while he’ll realize that he can’t get your attention and will go away. This technique is also useful when there are loud noises while you’re meditating. Remember that the loud noise doesn’t destroy your breath. Your breath is still there, so just pay attention to that, and let the noise be. If it seems to be all around you, think of your body and mind as the screen on a window, and the noise is the breeze coming through the window. The screen doesn’t catch the breeze, and so it isn’t moved by the breeze. In the same way, you don’t have to catch the noise or chase it away. That’s the third method.

• The fourth method: When you become more sensitive to the breath energies in the body, you will see that when any thought comes into the mind, there will also be a subtle pattern of tension in the body. If you can sense that pattern of tension, just let it relax, and the thought will go away. It’s as if the tension is a marker that allows the thought to stay in the mind. Once the tension is gone, the thought has lost its marker and it will vanish. That’s the fourth method.

• The fifth method: If the other methods don’t work, put your tongue against your palate, clench your teeth together, and tell yourself, “I will not think that thought.” This is where you can also use a meditation word. In Thailand, they use the word Buddho, which means awake. Just repeat that over and over again very fast in your mind—BuddhoBuddhoBuddho—to leave no room in your mind for that thought. If you compare the different methods of dealing with unskillful thoughts with a box of tools, this last method is like a sledgehammer, which is not good for delicate work, but there are times when you need the sledgehammer whenever the mind is really obstreperous and disobedient.

When the Buddha taught these five methods, he also illustrated them with similes. The similes help you remember the methods, which means that they’re aids to mindfulness. At the same time, the similes supply you with perceptions as aids to your intention to escape the power of distracting thoughts when they arise. As we will discuss in a later talk, perceptions rank as a type of present kamma—which means that these methods are good illustrations of how the teachings on mindfulness and kamma work together.

The similes are these: The Buddha compares the first method—replacing an unskillful thought with a skillful thought—to a carpenter removing a large peg from a board by using a smaller peg. He compares the second method—seeing the drawbacks of the unskillful thought—to a teenager looking in a mirror and seeing with disgust that she has the carcass of a dead dog, snake, or human being hanging around her neck. A very graphic image, no? The third method—ignoring the thought—the Buddha compares to a man who, when noticing that something he doesn’t want to see comes within visual range, closes his eyes or turns away. The fourth method—relaxing the tension around the thought—is like a man who is walking and asks himself, “Why am I walking? It would be easier to sit down.” So he sits down. Then he asks himself, “Why am I sitting? It would be more relaxing to lie down.” So he lies down. As for the fifth method, the sledgehammer of forcing yourself not to think the thought, the Buddha’s image is of a strong man grabbing a weaker man by the throat and wrestling him to the ground. This image, too, is pretty graphic. It’s when the images are graphic that they’re easy to remember.

So there you are: When thoughts come up in your meditation, you have five different methods for dealing with them, along with five similes to keep the methods in mind. And you can work variations on these five methods to develop methods of your own. If you were to use only one method to deal with distracting thoughts, you’d be able to overcome only a very small range of thoughts. The thoughts that could bypass your one method would overcome your mind. It’s like Singapore during World War II. The British thought that the Japanese would come by the sea, so they put all of their canons in cement pointing out to the sea. The Japanese came overland, and the canons were useless.

So to be a good meditator, make sure you have all five kinds of tools at hand. As the Buddha said, when you’ve mastered these methods, you will reach the point where you will think the thoughts that you want to think, and you won’t have to think the thoughts that you don’t want to think. You’ll be the master of your thoughts and not their slave.

Q: The thoughts are arriving at an unbelievable speed. I tend to them and as soon as I realize, I am already in the film. Is there any method for being as rapid as the thoughts? Is it concentration?

A: Concentration helps, but it’s also necessary to remember all five methods for dealing with disturbing thoughts—in particular, the method of just ignoring the thoughts. The film can be playing, but you can just keep it in the corner of your eye and try not to get drawn into the story. At the same time, try to make the breath as interesting as possible so that you lose interest in the story of the film.

Q: You say that disturbing thoughts can be associated with a marker in the body, a marker in the breath energy. How can one locate this marker among all of the various energies that circulate around the body?

A: You have to be very alert and attentive. When the thought arises, the marker will arise at the very same time. If you can see, at the beginning of the thought, that there’s a change in your feeling of the body, that’s the marker.

Q: Is it that every thought necessarily creates a physical tension, especially in the level of the center of the brain or the center of the skull, or do there exist thoughts that do not create any tension at all?

A: For any thought to remain in mind, it requires a certain marker so that there will be something for the mind to refer to from one moment of attention to the next. Small points of tension in the body are the usual marker for our thoughts—and these can be located in any part of the body, not just the head—so there will be a certain tension with every thought.

In fact, as your mind gets more and more quiet and you actually see a thought beginning to form, you will notice that the tension comes first, and then your recognition or perception of what the thought is about comes after that.

When you’re doing concentration practice, this is one of the ways of keeping thoughts from coming into your mind. The little stirring of tension will appear someplace in your body—although at that point it’s hard to tell whether it’s in your body or in your mind. It’s right where the body and mind meet. If you see that little knot of tension appearing, the way I explain it to myself in English is that you “zap” it. You use breath energy to dissolve it away. And then the potential for the thought goes, even before you recognize what meaning you were going to give to the tension to turn it into a thought. Then your mind can return to its base.

It’s like that image I gave earlier of the spider on a web. As soon as there’s a slight stirring anywhere on the web, the spider goes right there, takes care of what needs to be taken care of, and then goes back to its original hiding spot.

Q: In the book, With Each & Every Breath, you discuss the notion of bhava. Does this relate to distracting thoughts? Could you explain this in more detail?

A: Bhava translates as “becoming,” a state of being that develops. And it basically means that you take on an identity in a particular world of experience. This can happen on many levels. All of us here have taken on the identity of “human being” on the human level right now. That counts as becoming on an external level.

Becoming also takes place on an internal level. In fact, this happens in the mind all the time, and when you meditate you’ll first begin to learn about the process as you try to stay away from distracting thoughts.

The process of becoming first centers on a desire. Suppose you have a desire for lavender honey and you know that in Moustiers they sell really good lavender honey. The parts of your experience that are relevant to the lavender honey—the store, the road to the store, what you’ll do with the honey when you get it: That’s the world in that particular becoming. The part of you that wants the honey and can obtain the honey: That’s your identity in that world of experience. Notice that this identity has two parts. The part that can obtain the honey is your self as producer—the part that can potentially produce the happiness you want. The part that wants to enjoy the honey is your self as consumer—the part that wants to taste that happiness.

These kinds of desire happen all of the time throughout the day. When you’ve had enough lavender honey, you may have a desire for water. Then the lavender honey is no longer relevant in that world of experience. What is relevant is where the water is now. And an even more graphic example: They say that when an alcoholic goes into your house, he will figure out very quickly where you keep your alcohol. That’s the relevant part of his world of experience. This means that even though we all live in the human world and have the human level of becoming in common, we also have our individual becomings inside the mind. If you have a room with 60 different people, you will have at least 60 worlds in the room. Sometimes it’s 60-times-60, because our becomings can multiply very quickly.

But becoming is not only a matter of distracting thoughts. When we’re meditating, we’re actually creating a type of becoming, although in this case, because the becoming of a concentrated mind is so steady and still, it allows us to see the processes of becoming as they happen. So this kind of becoming is part of the path.

Here again, though, desire forms the nucleus for the state of becoming. We want the mind to be concentrated. To fulfill that desire through the meditation, the breath is relevant. The way your body feels in the present moment is also relevant. Those are the relevant parts of your world. And you as the meditator are the identity you take on in this world: You want to master the abilities to produce the pleasure of concentration so that you can consume it. Hopefully, during this time, lavender honey and the identities and worlds that surround lavender honey will not be relevant. They’re part of the world outside—the part for which you’re supposed to put aside greed and distress. Otherwise, they become the dominant becoming in the mind, and the becoming of concentration around the breath gets pushed off to the side.

That’s becoming.