Freedom from Repetitive Thoughts
There are a few basic principles for learning how to release the contractions and stuck places we encounter in meditation. One of the most helpful of these principles is called Expanding the Field of Attention.
A repeated difficulty will be predominantly felt in one of the four basic areas of mindfulness. It will come either in the realm of the body, in the realm of feelings, in the realm of mind (thoughts and images), or in the realm of our basic attitudes (grasping, fear, aversion, etc.). Expanding the field of attention requires that we become aware of another dimension of the stuck place, of our insistent visitor, and not just notice its predominant face. This is because invariably we are stuck on a different level from the obvious one we have been noticing. Release will only take place when we can shift from that which is obvious to one of the other levels of awareness.
In meditation, the most common insistent visitors are the repetitive thought patterns we call the Top Ten Tunes. Normally when thoughts arise, we can simply acknowledge them and name them softly “thinking, thinking,” and in the light of loving awareness they will vanish like a cloud.
However, the Top Ten Tunes, whether as words, images, or stories, will persist and return no matter how often they are noticed. They play like old records, repeating a theme over and over. At first, to gain perspective, we can number them one through ten. “Oh, that is three on the hit parade this week.” In that way, when we notice them, we don’t have to play the record all the way through each time and we can more easily let them go. Or we can use a variation of this technique and give them a humorous name or title. I have given names to many now familiar aspects of myself, such as “The Hungry Ghost,” “Mr. Achiever,” “Attila the Hun,” “The Frightened Child,” “The Impatient Lover.” In this way, the repeated stories and emotions of fear, sorrow, impatience, and loneliness become more familiar, and I can listen to their tales in a friendlier and openhearted way. “Hello, nice to see you again! What do you have to tell me today?”
However, this is not enough. Suppose we encounter a painful repeated story about the divorce of our parents. It talks over and over about which children got to keep which possessions, and who said what to whom. Such a story can play many times. As it does, we must expand our field of attention: How does this thought feel in our body? Oh, there is a tightness in the diaphragm and the chest. We can name this, “tightness, tightness,” and stay kind and carefully attentive for some time. As we do, it may open to other sensations, and many new images and feelings will be released. In this way, we can first begin to release the physical contractions and bodily fear that we have held. Then we can expand the attention further to new feelings. What other feelings arise along with this thought pattern and this tightness? At first they may be half hidden or unconscious, but if we sense carefully, the feelings will begin to show themselves. The tightness in the chest will become anger, then sadness, and the sadness may become grief. As we finally begin to grieve, the pattern will release.
In a similar way, when we encounter a repeated physical pain or difficult mood, we can expand awareness to the level of thoughts, to notice with loving awareness the story or belief that comes along with it. With careful attention, we may find a subtle belief about ourselves that perpetuates the pain or mood, perhaps a story about our unworthiness, such as “I’ll always be this way.” When we become aware of the story or belief, and see it as just thought, often untrue, the pattern can be released.
But sometimes we need to open to the feeling level to release the stuck pattern. Repeated thoughts and stories are almost always fueled by an unacknowledged emotion or feeling underneath. These unsensed feelings are part of what brings the thought back time and again. Future planning is usually fueled by anxiety. Remembering of the past is often fueled by regret, or guilt, or grief. Many fantasies arise as a response to pain or emptiness. The task in meditation is to drop below the level of the repeated recorded message, to sense and feel the emotional energy that brings it up. When we can do this, and truly allow and come to terms with the feeling, the thought will no longer need to arise, and the pattern will naturally fade away.
Opening further, we can shift our awareness to the space around all things, and experience the vast openness of mind that holds all these thoughts and feelings.
This is an invitation to freedom.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “A Path With Heart”