Working with Habitual Thoughts

Imagine that someone wrote a note thousands of years ago. They gave it to someone and made them promise to carry it with them at all times, copy it, and pass it onto others.

So, this note makes its way from person to person for thousands of years and a cumulative tens of thousands of miles. Then, one day, it reaches you and you’re given the same instructions.

Standing there, your head brimming with curiosity, you open the note. It says:

“I’m a schmuck.”

You can either fold the note up, carry it around with you and then pawn it off on another, or you can go against the stream, crumple it up, and throw it away.

We didn’t choose the views, thoughts, and gut responses we have; we inherited them from genes and culture. The choice we do have is whether to hold onto them or not. In that way—once we’re developed enough to make our own decisions—we’re each responsible for our own well-being, and we’re also responsible for whether we pass that note onto other unsuspecting people or not.

You aren’t an isolated event. Who you are arose through fathomless depths of time and distance, and the things you say and do travel more miles than your feet ever will. Like the Subjects of Contemplation Sutta says:

‘I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator.

The things we do and say are far more real than our assumed identities are. In fact, we base our identities on our behavioral patterns. We’re eating, drinking, laughing, and crying long before we form the impression that there’s a magical I that’s doing those things.

“I am (insert an occupation), I like (insert things), I don’t like (insert other things), and I’m from (insert place).” The I is secondary; it’s draped across the things we do, and the things we loathe and enjoy. So action is at the heart of practice, and a thought is an action, it’s an activity.

A wandering mind knows no clarity, and a fixated one knows no respite.

Wrapped up in thought, we hold onto those notes we’ve been given. Opening our mouths we make copies and share them with others, carelessly tossing our garbage into other people’s personal maelstroms.

But we can stop, we can just stop the whole damn thing. It’s like cutting the head off a dragon that’s been tormenting a village for generations. It takes a little desperation, and whole lot of dedication, but it can be done.

There are several different methods: Some people recommend just observing thoughts without pushing them away or clinging to them. Others encourage pushing away unskillful thoughts and cultivating skillful ones. I like the ruthless method of tossing all of them out and then concentrating on the space they leave behind.

In a pinch, I’ll fight fire with fire and interrupt the stream-of-thought with another thought: CHOP! “Well, I should-” “CHOP!” “Maybe I-” “CHOP!” “Nothing’s ever-” “CHOP!” “I’m a-” “CHOP! CHOP! CHOP!”

After awhile, you can sense when a thought is about to arise. There’s a kind of subtle churning in the mind. I chop that too. Then I just concentrate, monitoring the silence; letting some thoughts crawl lightly past if they’re relevant to the present sensorium, but freezing and vaporizing the ones that aren’t.

Sometimes the mind wanders to a memory, a daydream, or a familiar inner-monologue. I just bring it back to the silence, and each time I do, an unbelievable joy rises back up, lapping at the mind like gentle waves against a shore. As endurance increases, it grows stronger and doesn’t fade as much.

I think not-thinking in daily life, only allowing essential thoughts to form. Even when I’m speaking with someone, the words are leaving my mouth but there’s total silence in the mind—even more so than when I’m just sitting, actually. Whenever possible, I’ll just sit or stand unmoving while focusing on the non-arising of thought.

As a rule of thumb, when thoughts do arise, I try to craft them skillfully so that they’re useful, appropriate, and kind. This process freed me from a 6-month long hellish narrative that I got tangled up in. It helped me process my dad’s heart attack and triple bypass without getting swept away by the monkey mind. Now it’s going to help me in my relationships with others, my health, clarity, and well-being.

I can’t even express how thankful I am that I’m finally learning how to shut the fuck up and let the silence do the talking.

2 thoughts on “Working with Habitual Thoughts

  1. “I am being Unborn, I like the Unborn, I don’t like being not Unborn, and I’m from the Unborn.” The I is secondary; it’s draped across the things we do, and the things we loathe and enjoy. So action is at the heart of practice, and a thought is an action, it’s an activity.


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