Skillful Versus Unskillful Thinking

| February 18, 2013 | 11 Comments

Unskillful ThinkingFor the past two months, I’ve had a lot of time to think, perhaps too much time. At any rate, thinking is natural to us all, and sometimes the way people write about it, you could get the impression that thinking is wrong in Buddhism. Not so. Buddha was clear that there is skillful thinking and unskillful thinking:

“There is the case where evil, unskillful thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — arise in a monk while he is referring to and attending to a particular theme. He should attend to another theme, apart from that one, connected with what is skillful . . . ” Vitakkasanthana Sutta: The Relaxation of Thoughts

I find the passage above interesting for two reasons. The first is unskillful thinking is defined as thoughts that are imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion. As you may have discovered already, desire, aversion, and delusion can cause us a great deal of suffering, and can be the impetus for unkind words and actions. Hence, thoughts that are imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion are being regarded as unskillful. This gives us a well-defined starting point, where we can explore just when and how frequently our thoughts are unskillful.

The second interesting part of the quote above is that Buddha doesn’t just say, stop thinking. He doesn’t even say, let go of the thought and focus on your breath! No, what he suggests here is to put our thoughts on something else, something that can be considered skillful. In a nutshell, he is suggesting distraction, but distraction of skillful nature.

Additionally, he seemed to have a good understanding of how obsessed we can get, that we get caught up on a merry-go-round of thinking, because he continues on with:

If evil, unskillful thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — still arise in the monk while he is attending to this other theme, connected with what is skillful, he should scrutinize the drawbacks of those thoughts: ‘Truly, these thoughts of mine are unskillful, these thoughts of mine are blameworthy, these thoughts of mine result in stress.’ As he is scrutinizing the drawbacks of those thoughts, those evil, unskillful thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — are abandoned and subside. With their abandoning, he steadies his mind right within, settles it, unifies it, and concentrates it.”

We all know how  thinking can drag us down, yet we persist in playing these thoughts in our minds over and over. Buddha tells the monks that if thoughts continue to pester, then to look at the negative ramifications of following them, to examine how these types of thoughts have drawbacks and repercussions. Of course, this takes a bit more thinking, of the skillful kind.

I explored my own thoughts. When they simply would not be dismissed, I considered how they were affecting me. I’ve been feeling frustrated by my conclusions, helpless, and angry. My thoughts definitely are causing me suffering through aversion, and they are circular, obsessive, as I tried to find resolutions for them. There may be no answers, and when I follow them, I end up in a “thicket of views”.

To practice Buddha’s advice, moving off of unskillful thoughts and moving to a skillful theme, we need a good understanding of what skillful thinking is. I looked through the texts, and  Buddha seems to refer to skillful thinking in the context of that which harmless or in renunciation. He doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing various examples of skillful thinking. I suspect that has to do with the infinite variety that thinking can take. Skillful thinking follows when one is mindful, present with the current task.

“And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with harmlessness arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with harmlessness has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, & leads to Unbinding. If I were to think & ponder in line with that even for a night… even for a day… even for a day & night, I do not envision any danger that would come from it, except that thinking & pondering a long time would tire the body. When the body is tired, the mind is disturbed; and a disturbed mind is far from concentration.’ So I steadied my mind right within, settled, unified, & concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind would not be disturbed.” Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking

The key word is harmlessness. If a thought is not causing you or others harm, it may very well fall into skillful thinking. Naturally, thoughts of compassion, generosity, and forgiveness will be skillful, but much of our lives involves thinking that is perhaps neutral, or may be considered skillful. I think about what I’m going to eat, what I need to do for the day, and I think while working math problems, etc. As I become more mindful to thoughts, I realize a lot of thoughts are harmless, but many of them can quickly lead to aversion and anger. Unskillful thoughts are easiest to set aside when caught early.

During meditation, I am labeling every thought that interrupts my focus on the breath as either skillful or unskillful. I’m finding this helpful, and I’m being flexible in my labeling, as I don’t want to get caught up in trying to determine the label. If I don’t know, I just go back to the breath and skip it.

For daily life, I’m amping up the mindfulness sensor to alert me as soon as I get into unskillful thoughts. I note the thought as unskillful, note the breath, then move onto something else. While my mindfulness seems to be working well, I’m surprised at how negative and aversive my thinking has become. I find an easy distraction for those thoughts is to recall something I need to do: sweep the floor, feed the birds, watch a math video, write an email, walk my dog, etc.

Perhaps the overactive mind is why Zen masters are so often handing their students a broom!

I’ve discovered that my mind craves the negative thinking, perhaps only because it’s recently become a habit. Justifications for negativity start hammering at me. At times I feel like I’m sitting in a room, witness to several people arguing various viewpoints, and at the center is the one who wants quiet, who wants to move away from anger and aversion. This also explains why meditating has been so challenging for me lately, and why I get so squirmy early on. As Buddha says above, “. . . a disturbed mind is far from concentration.”

Of course, there are times when we need to think about unpleasant or negative topics, and deal with challenging issues. The Buddha is not suggesting that those types of decision-making thoughts or discussions should not occur. When he speaks of unskillful thinking, he is referring to our thinking that fosters aversion, desire, greed, hatred, etc. , the kind of thinking that can lead to obsessions and delusions, distractions from what we may need to be addressing.

Meditation is the best tool we have to deal with thinking. Every time we let go of a thought to return to the breath we are gaining the skill we need to develop our minds. Throughout the day mindfulness allows us to catch an unskillful thought rising, and regular meditation enables us to let it go before we end up on the thinking merry-go-round.

“Now when a monk… attending to another theme… scrutinizing the drawbacks of those thoughts… paying no mind and paying no attention to those thoughts… attending to the relaxing of thought-fabrication with regard to those thoughts… beating down, constraining and crushing his mind with his awareness… steadies his mind right within, settles it, unifies it and concentrates it: He is then called a monk with mastery over the ways of thought sequences. He thinks whatever thought he wants to, and doesn’t think whatever thought he doesn’t. He has severed craving, thrown off the fetters, and — through the right penetration of conceit — has made an end of suffering and stress.”
That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, the monks delighted in the Blessed One’s words.

Imagine being the master of your own mind, thinking only what you want to think, when you want to think it! I found Vitakkasanthana Sutta: The Relaxation of Thoughts helpful. You might too.

Category: Articles

Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (11)

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  1. WHP_Dave says:

    Wonderful post and so well illustrated. I especially appreciate the tie-ins with suttas.
    Blessings,
    Dave
    http://www.wellhappypeaceful.com

  2. Candol says:

    You consistently get to the key questions with great clarity. PS, i haven’t read it all yet so i’m not sure if i’m going to find something to disagree with but so far so great. I”ve got to go out but just wanted to say something good!

  3. Kataraina Mateparae says:

    Stunning! I will look for more of your contributions, Dana.

  4. Candol says:

    Dana, i wonder if its really true that you have become more negative recently or its more true that your awareness of your negativity has grown. OF course i don’t know about you, so i ask. But i ask because there was a stage a while back when i noticed an increase in my awareness.

    The interesting thing about it was that this awareness came when i was in a particularly relaxed phase. I was driving down to the monastery. This trip took five days of driving and i tend to avoid the long quiet trips like this when i spend little time engaging with others , and hwen i’m not distracted by tv and the internet. So i have more time to be with my thoughts.

    Now that i am a meditator and a mindfulness practitioner, this trip was much more different from most others i have done in the past when i let my mind lazily wander all over the place to whatever catches its fancy.

    This trip i could enjoy the lack of stimulation and just enjoy watching my mind in play. And what i noticed was how often my mind would turn to negative thoughts.

    Of course as someone who battles with depression quite often, i am used to have a lot of negative thinking going on but this was of a different kind. This was much more low level and was not painful. I would have missed it entirely had i not been a meditator and practitioner of mindfulness because i would not have been aware of noticing negativity. These were negative thoughts that normailly i would have given no attention too. Just mind fluff.

    But this time i noticed and i was alarmed too. But i do’nt think it meant i have become more negative. I think it just meant i have noticed that i am quite negative.

    I don’t know enough about you to know if that could be a better explanation with you. But certainly if i knew you personally, i think i could tell. But then maybe not. Maybe the truth is that we are all quite negative thinkers but most people do not express it. Or that we are almost all people who a good proportion of our thinking is negative.

    I am going to do my meditation tonight on thinking and mindful thinking inspired by this article in particular. I’ve been thinking of doing it for sometime but wasn’t quite sure how i would do it. NOw i think i will focus on different types of unskilful thinking and becomign aware of our thinking styles and so on.

  5. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Candol, there have been some very specific events that I have been reacting negatively too, and some areas I consider to be “realistic” but are frustrating me and causing anger when I think about it. In all cases, these things are not within my control. My judging them isn’t helping me, and is causing me to get negative. So, best course of action is not to think about them.

    My awareness has improved over the years, but I don’t tend to be negative. It’s the path I’ve wondered down the past few month, and have been aware of the negativity as well as the pointless suffering its causing in my.

    • Candol says:

      Yes when you can’t control a situation that’s when we are taught in buddhism, let go. I”ve had enough of those situations to deal with. I”m getting good at it now. I am somewhat ready to drop and walk away from everything in my life if i have to. Because of buddhism. I mean its buddhism that has enabled me to take that sort of attitude and i find in doing that that my present state of mind is more relaxed. So i’m glad about that.

  6. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Letting go is an amazingly useful skill! And this is why I find meditation so useful even though I still don’t like doing it. Meditation is constant letting go. The one thing I have not successfully learned to let go is boredom in meditation!

    • Candol says:

      Dana i don’t feel boredom so much in meditation anymore. Do you observe your experience with “interest and curiosity”. I observe my breath that way now since noticed i was noticing more when i was at Santi Monastery. Now i try to observe everything in meditaiton with “interest and curiosity”. So i don’t feel bored but still struggled with restlessness.

  7. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    I try, Candol. I’ve tried getting under the boredom. Mostly it stems from my attachment to information input, and my habit of always reading, learning, etc. it’s something I’m working on, to be ok with just resting this busy brain.

  8. bodhipakkaya says:

    Dear Dana..I enjoyed your article on Skillful versus Unskillful thinking.
    It has helped in counteracting the negative effects of a recent negative employment performance appraisal (nepa) I received.
    It helps me to realise that I have a job but I am not just an employee-I have some dignity left over. I intend to practice the steps set out in the Vittakkasanthasa i.e gritting my teeth!

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