What can we do with those pesky recurring thoughts?
They are usually of a negative variety: about longing, or anger, or humiliation, or perhaps vengeance. You’re thinking of something unjust that happened to you or something someone said to you. Or perhaps, you want someone to act or feel a certain way. Sometimes it’s your to-do lists. Sometimes recurring thoughts are about wanting to be heard. You have something to say to someone and haven’t been able to and thought-conversations swirl in your head, over and over again.
Sometimes the voice in your head is yelling at you. Sometimes it tells you how weird your life is, or why this happens to you all the time. Sometimes it questions your sanity. Have you noticed that your internal voice is confrontational and highly critical? You wouldn’t let anyone else talk to you the way the voice talks to you. Would you?
Recurring thoughts and underlying emotions arise from the past. They arise from samskara, the conditioned and unconscious mind. They are the output of memory and grooves left over from past reactions. We can see that they steal our joy. We can see that they are useless. We can also see that the mind-ego takes a peculiar pleasure from cycling through these thought-stories, over and over and over and over again.
So what can we do about compulsive thoughts?
Let me illustrate the technique. Have you ever had a song playing in your head repeatedly? You can get rid of the recurring song instantly, if you want. Look at with Awareness. Look at with attention, without thinking about it or participating in it. Contain it whole in your attention. Look at it hard, and it goes away.
The critical part of the technique is simply using attention in a slightly different way. Attention is observing, being present, being a silent witness, being the unoccupied effortless choiceless awareness that you already are, to thinking, rather than a particular thought.
We can get there in four steps:
You have to acknowledge the recurring thoughts and the underlying emotions. It isn’t always straightforward to find the underlying emotions. The underlying emotions usually are driven by on or more of four motivators: wanting control, wanting security, wanting approval, or wanting to run away from fear.
For example, you may have recurring thoughts about someone you are longing for, and the underlying emotions may be hurt, jealousy or a desperate wanting. What do the hurt and jealousy stem from? From one or more of: wanting control, security, approval, or fear of separation. Pin down the motivating drivers to one or more of the four wants, and it will help you see the mechanism of the mind-ego.
You have acknowledged the compulsive thoughts and emotions and you can now accept them just as they are. Don’t judge, don’t alter, don’t analyze, and don’t feel guilty about thinking. Simply accept unconditionally, with love, that these thoughts and emotions come up.
The energy of opposing these thoughts simply energizes more thought. All you get is more thinking and more judgment. Accept, without adding another layer of suffering.
With awakening, we realize eternal innocence. Everyone does absolutely the best they can in the circumstances and conditioning they find themselves. So what is it that we can forgive? Who can we forgive? How can we be forgiven when we realize we are not the ego? Do we forgive the drunken monkey or the wild stallion he has been riding? There is a realization that there is nobody who needs forgiving.
Nevertheless, forgiveness is an important heart technique for many. The Buddha said anger is like a hot coal you carry around, waiting to throw at someone. It burns you while you carry it around. Forgiving is dropping the hot coal.
Forgiving is releasing and healing. If you’ve been practicing the release technique (see How to release Big and Small Emotions), you can see forgiveness and releasing are exactly the same thing.
How do we forgive?
Start with acknowledging that forgiving is not easy for the ego. Acknowledge that the superior sort of forgiving that the ego does is not forgiving. Forgiving someone with the feeling that we can forgive because we are better and bigger, is not forgiving. Know that it is easy and simple to release and forgive; the reason we think it is difficult is because the ego-mind takes a peculiar pleasure from holding onto to negativity. So ask yourself: would rather be right or happy?
Look hard at the recurring thoughts with Awareness as a witness, not getting wrapped up in the story, but just witnessing them in Awareness. Hold the thoughts and emotions in Awareness. Be the gentle, unoccupied, choiceless awareness. Fully experience them. Give them space. Give them even more space. Let go.
Your turn. What thoughts are swirling in your head these days? Take five seconds, center yourself in your breath, and then look at it. What’s looping around?