Note: This is a guest post by Albert Foong from UrbanMonk.Net.
What is the biggest obstacle most people face in achieving personal mastery?
Your mind; your thoughts. When you master your mind, everything else begins to fall into place.
But the moment we look at our mind, we begin to see how wild it is. Modern psychology estimates that we have 40 to 60 thousand thoughts a day, and most of them are repetitious, useless – and often, unhappy.
In my quest to control our monkey mind, I’ve taken from the best systems – from modern Cognitive Psychology, to the ancient spiritual systems – in particular, the Buddhist Sutra on the Removal of Distracting Thoughts.
Here are the results – five levels, arranged according to how unruly your thoughts are. First a warning – it is easy to get anxious and jump ahead to the more advanced levels, thinking that your mind is wilder than it really is. Please don’t, and give each level an earnest effort over a few days.
The first level – Reflect on the positive counterpart
It stands to reason that the thoughts you most want to remove would be negative: fears, anxieties, anger, lust, revenge, pride.
And therefore the easiest way to counteract them is to reflect on the opposite. What is the positive counterpart to your affliction?
Just a few examples then: If you hate someone, then reflect on love. Think kind and loving thoughts about them. If you lust after someone, or something, then reflect on their bad points, or their ugliness. If you are just agitated and restless, then reflect on peace and harmony. Visualise yourself in a calm environment, a mental “happy place”.
On the deeper level, feel the counteracting emotion completely. Simply drench yourself with it. Imagine it as an energy, a light, a waterfall – anything that works best for you – and imagine yourself being surrounded from the inside and outside with it. This might be hard initially, but that’s normal. Keep trying, and you’ll get it.
Often, it is good to get your body into it as well. Get some exercise, put on some music and relax, or take a break from whatever you have to do.
The second level – Reflect directly on the misery
The next level goes a touch deeper. Look past the thoughts themselves, and see what they are costing you.
Perhaps you are distracted at work by hatred for your colleague. Perhaps you are tempted to cheat on your lover because you feel lust for your sexy neighbour. Then reflect on it – instead of trying to fight it, turn around and face it. What would happen if you didn’t stop, if you indulged in your thoughts?
Maybe you would get fired for doing a bad job. Maybe you would actually go and punch your boss in the face. Maybe your wife would divorce you if you slept with your neighbour.
Simply realise how much misery it is already causing you, and how much it can cause you if you kept on doing it. Feel it. Feel the hatred or the lust or the jealousy or the fear totally.
The Buddha used the metaphor of a well-dressed young person, who finds him or herself with the carcass of a snake around their neck. The disgust is sometimes enough to make them throw the dead animal off them.
The third level – Letting them slide
This level is about simply letting your thoughts slide by without attaching to them. Thoughts are just thoughts. You are not your thoughts. You don’t have to believe them; you don’t have to fight them; you don’t have to cling to them. They are just thoughts, and they only have power if you give them power.
Visualise a large blank screen, and see your thoughts as little ants scurrying across. Prodding or playing with those ants make them lose their way and they can’t find their way off the screen. So: don’t judge, don’t analyse, don’t hate. You don’t have to believe them, if they are saying you are stupid, or weak. You don’t have to cling to them, if they are saying you are brilliant and handsome. These are all forms of playing with your ants.
Think of a spoilt brat who is jumping up and down, trying to make you angry while you are trying to watch the television. The more you get affected by it, the more he enjoys it, and the more he will do it. Just tune it out and enjoy yourself. Or smile at the child, let him know he can’t affect you, and after a while he’ll give up and find something else to do.
The fourth level – The source of the thoughts
The first thing we have to realise is that thoughts always have a source – our emotions. The two are inextricably linked; they feed each other in one giant cycle.
What is causing your thoughts? If your mind is filled with images and thoughts of lust, then there is the emotion of lust behind it. If you think a lot of cruelty and hatred, then the emotion of anger is right there underneath it.
Emotions are your body’s reaction to your mind. At this level, one of the most powerful, we shall simply cut to the root of the issue.
How do we deal with our emotions? The most simple way – and yet no one ever says it! Simply feel it. Bring it to the surface, find the emotion, and feel it.
Feel it, simply as an emotion, a sensation. Emotions and feelings are not wrong or right, good or bad. They simply are. They are just emotions. Even the most murderous rage is not wrong – it is only bad if you act on it. Just embrace it, let it be there. Don’t push it away or judge it. Relax into it, loosen any tightened muscles, and remember to keep breathing normally. Ride the wave, and let it pass. Don’t think about it – thinking about it will make you want to act on it.
Often times, these emotions run deep, and can take a lot of work to uncover and heal with your conscious embrace. But the journey is worth it – it is one of the best ways, perhaps the only way, of dealing with your emotions.
Heal the emotions, and the thoughts they cause will disappear.
The fifth level – Beating down the bad thoughts
This level is the hardest, and draws upon the techniques of modern psychology. It is hard and painful, and should be reserved for the most extreme cases. Think of this level as a big strong man beating down a weaker man, with pure brute force.
At this level, simply force yourself to stop thinking about it.
1. The Howitzer Mantra. Any time you catch yourself with a thought you don’t want, interrupt it with a prepared mantra. Make it a forceful phrase, one that works and feels right for you. “Stop!” “Enough!” “No more!”
2. The Rubber Band. Wear a rubber band around your wrist. And every time you catch yourself with a negative thought, snap the rubber band. It hurts a little bit, and you are telling your system that such thoughts hurt. Like a puppy that has been punished, it will eventually stop.
3. Filling in the gap. An important thing to note is that once you stop your thoughts, a space is created. If you don’t fill that gap in, the distracting thoughts will return to fill it. So find something nice to think about. A pleasant memory or perhaps an affirmation to fill that hole. A final option would be to simply focus on the gap, enjoying the pause in your thoughts, the silence. Doing so will slowly expand it – making the next gap, when it comes, even longer.
Thank you, Donald, for letting me have a guest post. Controlling your mind is one of the most powerful things you can ever do for yourself, and these represent the best techniques I’ve researched and practiced. I’m grateful that Donald is giving me a chance to share it with his audience.
About Albert Foong
Albert runs UrbanMonk.Net, a practical personal development blog that has enhanced the lives of many readers, moving them out of suffering and into a life of joy, love and success. It draws upon ancient spirituality, modern psychology, real life experiences, and everything in between.
Albert, Great article as usual!! I love the pavlinian idea of using the rubber band..it will be very effective 🙂
Overcoming your fears goes a long way to calming your mind. I can’t tell you (specifically) how to deal with your (personal) fears… but I can tell you (from personal and professional experience) that facing up to, and overcoming your fears is one of the most liberating and fulfilling ‘growth experiences’ you will ever have.
Thank you Craig, yes! I agree that turning around and facing everything you’ve been running away from is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Thank you Seeker (as well) – it works tremendously well for breaking bad habits as well 😉
That is a very interesting post on memory techniques! In fact, to find out more about other useful memory techniques, check out http://www.photographic-memory.org, they have many great articles and tips to guide you.
If emotions are not bad, but simply are what they are, why are thoughts any different? Why are they not simply what they are also?
Hi Albert – fascinating post!
Your third suggestion – letting them slide – reminds me of the “thank you for sharing” technique I picked up (I think) many years ago at a Landmark Forum.
Basically, any time I realise I’m hearing my inner voice talking in a way that I know isn’t constructive, I imagine it’s another person that I can interact with. In the same way that I might react to someone outside of myself, I basically acknowledge what it’s saying, thank them for sharing, let them know they’ve been heard, and then attempt to move on.
This is usually enough to get the unconstructive inner voice to shut up… at least for a while anyway 😉
Albert and Donald,
This was an excellent essay.
Have you read the Davis research “Metacognition, Agents, Animats and the Society of Minds”?
It is a facinating piece (with a brief 5 page abstract) that looks at some similar concepts.
Here is the address if you are interested.
Bye the way, No, I didn’t write it. No, I’m not selling anything. 🙂
My concern regarding the rubber band method is that it uses pain to distract from painful thoughts, something that many cutters do to themselves.
Thanks for the link! It’s a research paper which takes a bit more effort to understand (for me at least 🙂 ). But it’s very interesting.
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Thanks for the techniques, these are very useful to control the negative thoughts.
very nice peaceful. Right thing at the Right time- for my mind
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