Skills for Dealing with Intruding Thoughts

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

Skills for Dealing with Intruding Thoughts

If we were to measure our thoughts in terms of their quantity, we’d have to say that we’re really good at thinking. In terms of their quality, it’s another matter.

Very rarely do we pay much attention to quality; it’s more a matter of being interested in whatever the mind churns up. Some people are better at directing their thoughts for particular purposes, and other people just follow wherever the thoughts may lead them. But in either case, we’re way too interested in our thinking.

Any thought that comes up, we have to peer inside. It’s as if it’s a little present. What’s inside this present? You open it up, and sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good. But then you find yourself falling into the present, this gift that you’ve given to yourself, and sometimes that can involve a lot of suffering because your thoughts can take you in all kinds of places.

As we meditate, we’re trying to get some control over this process.

There’s the belief that meditation involves no thinking at all, which is not the case. You’re basically learning how to think more skillfully and to be more discriminating in how you go into your thinking—which thoughts are worth thinking and which ones are not.

The Buddha gives you skills not only in passing judgment on your thoughts, but also in learning how to stop the thoughts that are not worth thinking and to encourage the ones that are.

He talks about five skills all together.

When a distracting thought comes up as you’re meditating, the first approach is to simply note the fact that it’s a distraction, and then replace it with the topic of your meditation. Or if you find that the meditation is not grabbing your interest today, replace it with some other skillful form of thinking. You can change the topic of your meditation. If you’ve been doing the breath, you can try analysis of the body into its parts, or you can think thoughts of goodwill. Something skillful.

If that doesn’t work, the Buddha says to think about the drawbacks of that distracted thinking. Where is it going to take you? What kind of qualities is it developing in the mind as you pursue that line of thought? Which defilements? Greed? Aversion? Delusion? And what would it lead you to do if you were to think about it for a long period of time? Keep examining the thought in that way until you decide that you really don’t want to go with it, and then you get back to your meditation.

The third approach is simply to ignore the thought. You know it’s there, but you just don’t pay it any attention. In other words, just because a thought is in your mind doesn’t mean you have to follow it, doesn’t mean you have to get into it. It’s there, but you don’t have to get into it at all.

The fourth approach is to relax around the thinking. When you realize that that distractive thinking takes energy, and you can find where you’re tensing up to keep that thought going, then you relax it.

The fifth approach is, as the Buddha says, to crush your mind with your mind. In other words, if the other approaches don’t work, you just make up your mind, “I’m not going to think that thought,” and then you bear down. Put the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, grit your teeth, and just tell yourself, “I will not think that thought.” You can use a meditation word really rapid-fire like BuddhoBuddhoBuddho, really fast, to jam the circuits.

So those are the five methods. The Buddha says that when you master them, you’ll be able to think the thoughts you want to think and not think the thoughts you don’t want to think.

And as you get better and better at these methods, you get to be more discriminating in which thoughts you really do want to think.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Dhamma talk, Standing Outside Your Thoughts, January 6, 2023. [Also available in PDF.]