Transforming Anxiety and Difficult Thoughts
In Buddhist psychology, the instructions for thought transformation are very explicit. The Buddha instructs his followers, “Like a skilled carpenter who removes a coarse peg by knocking it out with a fine one, so a person removes a pain-producing thought by substituting a beautiful one.” The carpenter’s peg is a practical description of how we can remove unhealthy thought patterns such as self-judgment, worry and anxiety by thought substitution. What is required is the selection of a helpful substitute and repeated practice. Repetition is key. Repetition, compassion, and the belief that the painful cycles of thought can be transformed all have a part in developing new patterns of thought.
The most common replacement thoughts are variations on the practices of loving-kindness and compassion. When a repeated negative thought arises, one of worry and anxiety, of self-criticism or depression, first study it. When does it arise? How often? What is its tone of voice? Does it appear as words or have images too? What story does it want you to believe? How painful is it to hear it over and over? Now that you see it clearly, you can say to the thought, “Thank you for trying to protect me, but I’m OK now.”
Then choose a suitable replacement such as:
“I am a compassionate person, I care for people.”
“I care for myself.”
“May I be safe and protected.”
“I will live with a peaceful heart.”
“A day at a time.”
“I will live with trust and kindness.”
Even so, some patterns of unhealthy thought—jealousy, anger, fear, unworthiness, and anxiety—are so stubborn they are hard to tame by simple substitution. For these thoughts, the Buddha offers more forceful methods. His instructions continue: “And when there still arise patterns of unskillful thought, the danger that thoughts will cause pain and suffering should be clearly visualized. Then, naturally, like the abandonment of garbage, the mind will turn from these thoughts and become steady, quiet, clear.” We can actually feel the danger when we are possessed by thoughts of jealousy or anger, or we are in the grip of anxiety. These tighten and stress our whole body. They keep us from rest. And when we consider acting on them, we know the results could be regrettable.
It is important that we don’t judge ourselves when we see these thoughts; they are just thoughts! The transformation practice is simply to set a powerful new intention. We can see that certain thoughts are unbidden, impersonal, and unhealthy thoughts are painful and do not have our best interest in mind. Out of compassion for ourselves we can feel their danger. “Like unhealthy garbage,” says the Buddha, “we can put them down.” Or we can visualize sweeping them out of our body down to become manure for the earth. Then we can add a skillful replacement.
Still, some patterns of destructive thought are so strong that even more forceful measures are needed. The Buddha tells us to “deliberately and directly ignore these thoughts, turn away, giving no attention, as if shutting our eyes or quickly looking away from a disturbing and harmful sight.” And if such patterns continue, “the wildly unskillful thought stream should be gradually slowed and stilled by slowing the breath step by step as if gradually slowing one’s pace from a run to a walk to standing.”
Now we are talking about thought patterns that are “sticky.” We all know them from experience, when a fear or doubt or obsession just won’t go away. The thoughts may be unpleasant, but our mind gets in a groove and we don’t know what to do but stay there. For example, the thought of letting go of our ex-lover becomes a form of thinking about him or her. Ignoring the thoughts and walking mindfully and breathing slowly may reduce them. If not, the Buddha recommends a final and rarely used last resort: “Such thoughts should be met with force, teeth clenched, tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, determined to constrain, crush, and subdue these thoughts as if constraining a violent criminal. In this way does one become a master of thought and its courses. In this way one becomes free.”
As we can hear, these are not sweet “self-esteem” practices, looking in the mirror every morning and saying, “I am a loving person and the world will give me what I want.” The destructive habits of mind can be tenacious. There is an element of fierce determination and courageous self-discipline needed to take them on. When we do, we discover that we can train and direct our own mind. What a blessing!
Practice: Recognizing Our Mind States