“Our beliefs create our thoughts. And our thoughts create our feelings. And the thoughts and feelings create our behaviour. And our behaviour creates our destiny.” – Gandhi
There is something tragic that our lives are so full of possibilities and yet the movie in our mind keeps us in prison. The psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach tells the story of a white tiger who was born in a zoo in an enclosure. She grew up spending her time pacing her small cage. Later on, the zoo got upgraded and built her a much larger enclosure. But it was already too late, she could not adapt and continued pacing a smaller area in that enclosure for the rest of her life. This is what we do with our limiting beliefs about ourselves: “we maintain our world with our inner dialogue” and our world can change radically when we stop talking to ourselves.
With meditation practice we can start to notice the space between our thoughts and stop taking our thoughts as reality.
Replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy thoughts
Sometimes we are caught in repetitive, obsessive thinking, that is very sticky and more difficult to let go of. For this type of thoughts, the recommendation is to deliberately create positive thoughts in order to replace the unhelpful thoughts.
We bring the two wings of mindfulness to this process:
First, we begin by using our awareness to identify the patterns of thought that create suffering in our life. This is the first wing, seeing clearly the nature of our thoughts. These include thoughts of unworthiness, jealousy, hatred, revenge, anxiety, clinging and greed.
Then we bring in the second wing of mindfulness, the wing of loving presence and compassion, to transform our thoughts, out of compassion for ourselves and others, as a loving protection of ourselves and others. This becomes our true motivation to do this work.
The meditation teacher Jack Kornfield writes in the Wise Heart: “What we repeatedly think shapes our world. Out of compassion, substitute healthy thoughts for unhealthy ones.”
The Dalai Lama has said that transforming thought is one of his favourite practices. Here are his instructions: “Let yourself visualize the effects of unskilful thought patterns such as annoyance, anger, self-judgment and so forth. Inwardly see how such thoughts affect you: the tension, the raising of your pulse rate, the discomfort. Outwardly see how such thoughts affect others who hold them, making them upset, rigid, even ugly. Then make the compassionate determination “I will never allow such states to make me lose my peace of mind”.
The Thai forest Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah uses the metaphor of recognizing bad mangoes to describe this work of transforming our thoughts. He said to his students: “When we chose a fruit to eat, do we pick up the good mangoes or the rotten ones? It is the same in the mind. Learn to know which are the rotten thoughts and immediately turn from them to fill your basket with ripe beautiful mind states instead.”
Modern neuroscience now shows that with positive neuroplasticity our brains can be retrained and reshaped at any age to transform our mental conditioning. Each person has the power to change the structure of their brain for the better
In his book Hardwiring Happiness, the American psychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson describes the mind as a garden. When we practice being mindful, we are simply looking at the garden with its weeds and flowers without judging or changing anything. This first step is already very useful, but we can go further. We can decrease the negative by pulling the weeds in the garden of the mind, and increase the positive by planting more flowers. He invites us to take a three steps approach to our experiences: let be, let go, let in.
Jack Kornfield gives the following example: we can notice when we generalize from one problem to our whole life. If we have a loss in business or a setback in our career, we may think: I’m a loser, I’ll never succeed. In cognitive therapy this is described as false generalization, and we can substitute a more helpful thought instead: I have a good life and a healthy family. My life has had many successes.
With mindfulness, we take this process one step further by recognising that these thoughts are actually detrimental to our wellbeing, we recognize their harmful potential. For example, depressed, fearful, angry or anxious thoughts tell us stories of failure, loneliness, and separation: I can not go through this, it will always be this way, I will never have a good relationship. These thoughts create a limited, painful and false sense of self. With mindfulness, we become aware of the suffering created by these thoughts, we learn to release them and substitute them with wiser thoughts.
With anxiety and worry the Dalai Lama suggests the following approach: “With worry and anxiety, repeatedly cultivate the following thought. If the problem can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it. And if there is no solution, there is no point in being worried, because nothing can be done about it anyway.”
With this practice of substituting unhealthy thoughts by healthy thoughts, repetition is key, along with compassion and the belief that our unhealthy patterns can be transformed. It is really helpful to fully feel the negative impact of unhealthy thoughts in our body: the tightness, tension, stress in the body, our inability to rest, how they push us to act in shameful and harmful ways.
It is important to refrain from judging or criticizing ourselves for having these thoughts, the practice is simply to set a new powerful intention, out of compassion for ourselves and the suffering we endure because of them.
For the most sticky destructive thoughts, when our mind gets into a groove and becomes obsessive, the instructions are to practice ignoring the thoughts, and practice mindful walking and breathing, as well as bringing an element of fierce determination and self-discipline to transform our minds.
The traditional Buddhist texts instructs: “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.”
“This is a liberating discovery, that we can shift from our unhealthy stories to well-being. Today, in our world and driving, in talking and shopping, in moving our body and taking care, we can choose which sound track to play. Will it be a broken record from the past, bringing bitterness or sorrow? Or will we release those thoughts and allow life’s wonder and possibility? By transforming the landscape of our thoughts, we can revolutionize our entire world.” – Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart
If you would like to try a practice to transform your unhealthy thoughts, click here.
Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart
Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart
Tara Brach, True Refuge