I’m going to San Francisco this weekend! See the end of this article for details!
Sometimes get emails asking if there’s some special “Zen” way of dealing with obsessive or recurring thoughts.
When I get questions like this, there’s usually no way of knowing exactly who is asking. So I don’t know if I’m corresponding with someone who is likely to try and fondle the President’s poodle in order to impress a talking rabbit named Horacio or if it’s just someone who thinks about cheese all the time and wants it to stop. I try to be cautious with my answers.
For starters, there is no special Zen mind trick to deal with recurring thoughts. I can’t give you a nice prescription like, rub the soles of your feet together, stick out your tongue and put a bag of ice on your head for 27 minutes then the thoughts will go away. If you’re looking for that kind of thing you’re better off asking a psychiatric professional.
Even so, here are three things I have learned from my practice with my own recurring obsessions. First, all thoughts are just thoughts. Second, there is no way to think your way out of any thought. And third, you don’t need to believe your own thoughts.
We tend to rank our thoughts. We tend to think some are better than others. And that’s probably true to a certain extent. But if we take this notion too far, we are liable to try to use thoughts to defeat other thoughts.
For example, let’s say you have a cheese obsession. The thought of a delicious slab of aged English cheddar occurs to you. But you don’t want that thought. So another thought occurs, “I don’t want to think about cheese,” or “I’m a failure because I thought about cheese again.” You are defining yourself to yourself as a person who thinks about cheese but doesn’t want to.
We give special attention to that second tier of judging thoughts. We imagine we can somehow defeat the thought of cheese with the thought that says we’re a bad person for thinking of cheese. But that never works. It only makes us more likely to think of cheese again later.
All thoughts are just thoughts. The thought of cheese and the thought that it’s wrong to think of cheese are exactly the same sort of process going on inside the brain. You can’t use one to stop the other. You’re just reinforcing your cheese obsession by telling yourself it’s bad to be obsessed with cheese.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Even that kind of thinking is OK because you don’t need to believe your own thoughts. Any of them. Not the thought that you must have cheese or the thought that you’re bad for having that thought. It’s all just energy bouncing around inside your skull. Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true.
Learning to let go of thoughts can be useful, but it’s not easy. “Letting go” doesn’t mean “making them disappear.” It means to allowing the thought to be there without responding to it. Don’t fight against it. Don’t manipulate it in any way. Don’t deny it. Don’t affirm it. Don’t berate yourself for having the thought. Or if you do, don’t worry about that thought either. It’s just another thought. It’s no better or more worthy than the thought you’re berating yourself for having. Just let it be. It doesn’t matter.
Shunryu Suzuki said, “Thoughts are just the secretions of your brain, like stomach acid is the secretion of your stomach.” The thing we consciously experience as thought is just the brain digesting experiences. We interrupt this process all the time and, in doing so, we cause ourselves a lot of trouble. It’s as if we were trying to consciously direct our stomach to digest that yummy cheese first and leave the vegetables for later. If you could do that it wouldn’t be healthy. It’s best to let the stomach do its thing the way it needs to. Same with the brain.
Letting go of thought is easier said than done. We’re generally not used to letting our thoughts run free. Most of us have a habit of channeling thoughts in a particular direction. We put a lot of effort into cultivating certain thoughts as ways of reinforcing who we imagine we are. We use them to build up a self that we believe is our own.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we cultivate only the thoughts we want to have. Often unwanted thoughts are an even better way to build up a sense of self. I am the one who doesn’t want to think of cheese. The more unwanted thoughts of cheese I have, the more real my sense of self becomes. We don’t consciously try to do this, but we do it anyhow.
Trying to replace bad thoughts with good thoughts might provide some temporary relief, but it doesn’t get at the root of the problem. The thought “I must stop thinking about cheese” contains within it the thought of cheese.
Trying to fight negative thoughts with positive thoughts might also provide a bit of short-term relief. But a positive thought is only positive because it’s not a negative thought. So each positive thought contains a negative thought just like a coin that has a “heads” side and a “tails” side. Even if you turn all your pennies over so that President Lincoln is showing, each one of them still has that weird shield thingy on the other side (or the Lincoln Memorial if they’re older, but you get the idea). And they’re still all worth just one cent each.
Once you start to really understand this, it becomes a little easier to let thoughts be just as they are without judging them, without loving some and hating others, without embracing some and fearing others.
For me, it was rough to get to this point. When I stopped guiding my thoughts they started to get kinda weird. It felt like I’d opened up the gates of my subconscious and now all this strange stuff I did not recognize as me was coming through. It was uncomfortable.
That’s why this process needs to be taken slowly and carefully. If you open up those gates too fast you’re likely to be overwhelmed by what comes flooding through. I found I often had to take a few steps backward in my practice in order to manage things. A few times, when things got a bit too freaky, I even stopped doing zazen for a little while until I felt ready to get back into it again.
Anyway, whatever you do, please don’t fondle the President’s poodle.
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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
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April 7, 2016 San Francisco, California Against The Stream
April 8, 2016 San Francisco, California San Francisco Zen Center
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
April 24, 2016 Rochester, New York Rochester Zen Center
April 28-May 1, 2016 Atlanta Georgia 4-Day Retreat at Red Clay Sangha
June 2, 2016 Los Angeles, CA The Last Bookstore 7:00pm
September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat
September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat
September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University
October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
MORE EUROPEAN DATES TO BE ANNOUNCED SOON!
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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