Thought Filters

Someone sent me an email describing some strange sensations and thoughts that ran through his mind every time he did zazen. Here’s how I answered:

Yeah… Lots of things happen during zazen. It’s different for each person. The main thing to do with any sensations or feelings like these is to let them pass. 

I myself used to wonder if I was going crazy during zazen sometimes. I think it’s what happens when you start loosening control over your thoughts. We all have a lot of filters for our thoughts. We sort of run all of our random thoughts through a larger general filter that we believe to be our individual self. This filter censors certain thoughts and allows others to pass. The ones that get censored are not experienced consciously, even though they don’t really go away.

Sometimes our filter censors thoughts that are considered “bad,” like thoughts of violence or thoughts that are contrary to what it believes “good people” think. Sometimes it censors thoughts that don’t reinforce the sense of the extistence of a personal self.

When these filters start to become looser, those forbidden thoughts start to be more easily noticed. When that happens, the personal ego can feel threatened. It tries to make sense of these thoughts in a way that will still preserve the idea that it is real and is in control. But this sense of the ego’s reality and control was always false. 

Anyhow, one of the tricks the ego often tries at this point is to tell you that maybe you’re going crazy. It wants you to re-establish those filters.

This part of the practice should be handled carefully. The fact is that none of your thoughts are “you.” The filters are not necessary. They’re useful sometimes, but not really necessary. Any thought at all can come through your mind and have no effect on it. But the problem is that the ego might decide to try to hang on to those forbidden thoughts and this could cause trouble. That’s why the filters exist in the first place — to keep you from acting on some of those thoughts.

But you can also just let those thoughts come into the conscious mind and still not act on them. That’s harder for most people to do. It takes practice and discipline. But if you can learn to do it you’ll be able to handle a lot of stuff that most people can’t handle very well. You’ll be less likely to be overwhelmed by strong or difficult emotions, for example.

The most useful lesson zazen ever taught me was that my thoughts are just thoughts. All of them. No matter what they are. They’re all just thoughts. No big deal.

Sometimes when my brain stops buzzing with so many thoughts it feels really good. It’s like a muscle that’s been used so much that it’s gotten stiff and sore finally getting a little rest. That can feel very nice. I usually just try to enjoy it while it lasts. It think it’s good for your brain to get a little rest.


Angel City Zen Center now meets on ZOOM several times each week often with Brad giving the lectures. We’re even having an online retreat in November. For details check


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