I often tell people that while science taught me to be skeptical of the world, Buddhism taught me to be skeptical the inner world. But more accurately, I couldn’t be a good skeptic until I was able to turn skepticism inward and tame this overactive mind. Because while others may fool us with stories, lies, and misinformation, the biggest deceptions happen within our very own heads!
One of the first discoveries within meditation is that our minds are busy throwing out thoughts of all kinds. Sit and try to focus on your breath, take a deep breath, and ah, now time to relax. But what happens? You remember what you need to buy at the grocery store. You realize you forgot to email your boss about a meeting you had. A conversation with your mother the day before pops up. You think about what you should have said yesterday. Next thing you know, the timer goes off and you realize you’ve been telling off your mother for the last ten minutes. Worse, now you feel angry. What happened?
In that one short sitting, you’ve discovered heaps about how your mind works:
- Thoughts arise and fall away
- Thoughts create stories
- Thoughts stir up emotions
- Thoughts can be relentless
Returning again and again to the breath, with patience, with repeated sittings, helps slow the mind down so you can begin to recognize patterns, so you can see how often thoughts are meaningless, the delusions they create. Thought can reveal themselves to be trouble-makers that don’t serve you well at all. Much to one’s surprise, you’ll discover you are not your thoughts. Thoughts don’t define you, in spite of Descartes famous saying, “I think, therefore I am.” He was wrong.
Equally important, over time you learn to be skeptical of thoughts that arise, to be suspicious of the stories they try to spin. Often thoughts are way out of touch with the reality of experience, with the situation, if you can only but take a big step back and see objectively. If you practice bringing your focus back to the breath every time a thought arises, you learn to let go of pesky thoughts.
Thoughts need not rule you. You need not get caught on a train of thought that is increasing your anger, your sadness, your disappointment, or whatever emotions the story has elicited. But, but, you protest, I’m right! Thoughts create justification for anything, regardless if there is truth to the situation.
What I found fascinating to discover after having meditated on a regular basis for some time was that thoughts and emotions arise separately. For me, emotions arise within the body in various places, while thoughts are born in my head. My thoughts will give birth to emotions, strengthen those emotions, or if I let go of the thoughts, the emotion simply fades, gradually.
I remember when my friend Heather died. I felt so sad and so angry. My thoughts were in flurry of activity. So, I sat, and instead of focusing on the breath as I usually did, I focused instead on the sadness. Interestingly I could feel warmth in my thighs, my chest was tight, and I cried. My thoughts were of an angry nature for what had happen with her, so each time a thought arose, I let it go and focused back on the feeling of sadness in the body.
Sadness was an emotion I have notoriously avoided all my life. It somehow seemed destructive and scary, but here I decided to be with it, directly as an emotion, and this time I would not allow the thoughts to distract me into anger. I realized then my earlier defense mechanism had been to retreat into anger instead of being sad. For whatever reason, anger had been easier for me to deal with than sadness.
So, I sat with the sadness, noticed how it moved through the body. It had almost a softness to it, a kind of warmth that I had never noticed before. After repeatedly dropping the thoughts, my mind settled on the pure experience of just being sad. Fear melted away, and there was only this feeling of emotion. The story no longer arose, and all that was there was the feeling of missing Heather, of being sad that she had died.
Little by little the sadness faded. It would re-emerge from time to time, each time a little less than the last as I gave it the attention I felt it needed. The angry story I had originally, I realized had been a fabrication, something to stir up angry emotion instead of the sadness I didn’t want to feel. But now that I was at peace with the sadness, the angry story no longer arose.
When we become skeptical of the stories our minds create, we can see what going on deeper down inside, we can be with the experience itself directly, instead of riding on the surface, skimming over what is really happening, what really needs the attention.
I’ve discovered my anger is often a cloak for a deeper issue. It’s impossible to get at if I give into the thoughts and the story my mind wants to create. I’ve realized in this process of being critical of my gut reactions, the thoughts that arise, the stories my mind makes up, are out of old habitual thinking. None of it reflects who I am; these thoughts don’t define me. In fact, when I look really close they are but nebulous blips, meaningless if I pay them no attention, and full force trouble-makers if I do.
It’s amazing to discover what bullshitters our thoughts are. You think other people are bad, but oh my, just look into your mind. You will discover quite the storyteller there. Develop your inner skeptic. You’ll be amazed by what you discover!
Making Peace in My Own Backyard