Mindfulness: Kill Your Thoughts or Let Them Pass?

Two illustrated human heads facing each other against a cosmic background, with the head at left nearly empty and the one at right filled with a nebula of activity.

From the point of view of mindfulness, the logic is not to care about any of the interesting changes and experiences that come as a result of practicing in this way, because the underlying goal is to be more and more equanimous with changes.

So it’s not to grasp at what’s pleasant or interesting and not to push what’s unpleasant or boring or otherwise not engaging away. What you want is just a kind of “sky-like mind” that allows everything to appear, and you’re not clinging to anything or reacting to anything.

Sam Harris, Using Meditation to Focus, View Consciousness & Expand Your Mind

A wise neighbor and confidant once told me a juicy tidbit about directing your energy—he said, “Whatever you allow to become the object of your mind will manifest.”

Therefore, it’s best to strike negative thoughts or attachments from your mind when they arise to not give them power over you or control your destiny.

It’s often true that in the case of sickness and disease, what the mind habitually thinks, the body will manifest—belief is a powerful tool. But I’m not sure how beneficial mindsets are when applied to clinging to material stimulations, favorable past experiences and future outcomes.

On paper this seems like a logical, sound approach, but I believe most times it’s just sticking a band-aid on the underlying issues—if we don’t address the root cause of what we are grappling with, how are we to fix the problem?

Controlled vs Non-Structured Meditation

There are many benefits of concentrative meditation, including better focus, stress-reduction, and improved memory, sleep and wellbeing.

A deliberate meditation practice, like a manta or object-focused meditation, takes a dualistic approach to awareness—subject and object, actor and observer.

The practitioner focuses on one particular aspect of their experience and tries to consciously control it, instead of objectively feeling or looking at the entirety of their present experience. In this instance, they envision the self and the object of their awareness as separate entities in which the object being viewed is distinct from the subject that is doing the viewing (you).

It’s the sense that there’s kind of a rider on the horse of consciousness as opposed to just consciousness and its contents.

Dr. Sam Harris

However, though there are numerous cognitive and emotional benefits with this type of meditation, there is always a motive, an object of focus. In light of that, this deliberate awareness can inhibit the cultivation of mindfulness, i.e., total immersion in one’s present experience.

Concentration (or focus) can happen on its own. For example, consider one being fully engulfed in a movie, so much so that they are oblivious to anything else going on in their immediate surrounding environment.

In contrast, mindfulness and concentration are a packaged deal—wherever mindfulness is, concentration is also.

Though cultivating your concentration ability can improve mindfulness, and it then becomes much easier to recognize your mind wandering and shut it down, redirecting your mental comings and goings isn’t doing you many favors beyond improving your focus.

Suppressing Your Thoughts

For a long time I held the belief that the best way to combat mental afflictions like difficult emotions or clinging to things or ideas, and the daydreaming resulting from that suffering, was to strike it from your awareness.

When you notice it, bring your focus back to the desired mental formation (samskara) – be it an object, thought or feeling – in order to absolve yourself of the painful mental state.

In the particular case of painful emotions, I would try to supplant them with more pleasant ones. By doing this, you disrupt your brain’s tendency to have those conditioned responses—or so goes the logic.

Thought this likely will improve your ability to focus, the practice engages just as much impulsivity as the responses you seek to change do—it just tips the scales in the other direction, grasping for favorable reflexes instead.

The goal here is the avoidance of pain, and in order to prevent it, you become just as reactive; there is no buffer between the stimulus and the response, no attempt to resolve it. So ultimately, those same negative mental formations still have their fangs in you despite the adaptation.

photo of a lobotomized man rubbing his temples, with an illustration above his head of paper airplanes swirling around his brain

However, an approach where ones takes time to digest the stimulus before their reaction puts the organism (O) at the center, with them acting as an intermediary between the stimulus (S) and the response (R), instead of the impulsive ‘S’ => ‘R’ model. In my view, this SOR theory is likened with mindfulness.

Since you are merely bypassing your negative mental formations in favor of pleasant ones with the SR approach, no momentous healing or improvement can take place. You are subjectively focusing on one aspect of your experience and trying to consciously control it, instead of objectively feeling and looking at the entirely of your experience and just letting it unfold as you would with mindfulness.

Despite the fact that you are conscious of them, often these fixations on adaptation begin to have thrall over your mental processes and conduct, just as much as the initial mental formation. It simply takes the form of aversion instead of attachment.

Sometimes, the objects of our consciousness become something very strong. And they continue to weigh heavily on us, so that our way of speaking, thinking and acting are conditioned by it.

Thich Nhat Hahn

And the best way to lift that weight is to lean into it instead of just trying to drop it.

Letting Thoughts Arise, Just Be, and Dissolve

The idea here is that, when you notice a negative emotion or your thoughts drifting, don’t try to avoid it. Instead of getting frustrated or judgmental and purging the thought, emotion or image from your mind, embrace it. See it through, and bring your focus back to sensation when it has passed.

Though difficult at first, the fact that you’ve succeeded in making your negative thoughts and emotions the object of your mindfulness means your self-awareness has already improved, and the grasp those afflictions have on you is loosening.

If you just are willing to pay 100% attention to it, a couple of things happen.

One, is your resistance to feeling it goes away, by definition, because now your goal is to just pay attention to it. And you recognize that so much of the suffering associated with the pain was born of the resistance to feeling it.

Dr. Sam Harris

Though in this context, he is speaking of physical pain, the process applies to mental turmoil as well. And in the case of mental affliction, in addition to the realization you very likely had been overdramatizing the issue, you can gain insight into where it initially stemmed from.

The S-O-R technique will undoubtedly serve to resolve the conflict, though it may take practice. Material attachments to things like sweets, nicotine, or alcohol are more easily broken than longing for past circumstances or clinging to future outcomes by employing dopamine fasting, or sensory deprivation.

Breaking these addictions – which often arise from being discontent – is something that will come with time. But when pining for the happy times in the past or romanticizing the future, just diverting your attention from this daydreaming isn’t going to cut it.

When I find my mind gravitating towards a scheduled vacation five months from now, I meditate on my mind and reflect—what is lacking in my current experience that has me craving more or living for the future (or past), and what can I do to manifest it?

The answer usually comes fairly effortlessly for me when I let these thoughts and emotions arise and just be with them. With practice, it should eventually become just as easy for you to use mindfulness to stop running from yourself towards things, the future or past.

– CC


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