Right Thought

Following last week’s exploration of Right View, we’ll discuss Right Thought (or Right Intention) as a second step on the Noble Eightfold Path.

There are three classic stages to Right Thought: first, becoming aware of our thinking process; second, letting go of negative thought patterns; and third, cultivating goodwill.

As we investigate our thoughts, we can ask ourselves the following questions: “Are these thoughts benefiting me and others?”  “Do they stem from kindness or from desire?”  “Are my thoughts serving my heart?”  “Do they connect me with life or separate me from it?”

Thinking can seduce us into believing that if we continue to think more, we will solve our problems.  Especially when we ponder future plans, the act of thinking gives us the illusion of controlling events and making things happen.

When we are caught up in thoughts about the past, we often imagine that we can set right what has already happened.  But thoughts do not lead to wisdom, which is an expression of mindfulness and letting go of habitual patterns of thinking.

As we begin meditation practice, it is hard to resist the temptation to follow story lines of thoughts, especially if there is a pleasant or an unpleasant drama involved.   Such thoughts seem sticky, because we so easily become attached to them and forget to return to the less exciting focus of the breath.

Once we become aware of our thinking process, we can practice watching thoughts arise, moving like a cloud across the spaciousness of the mind, and passing away.  We learn that we have a choice about whether or not to engage in thoughts.

In the second stage of developing Right Thought, we do not attempt to stop thinking, but we try to renounce or let go of habitual and inappropriate thoughts that do not support our wellbeing.

Often our thoughts are triggered by something that feels pleasant or unpleasant.  For example, I am enjoying standing barefoot on a sandy beach and watching turquoise Caribbean waters glittering in the warm sunshine.  Then desire arises, with thoughts about how to prolong the pleasant experience.  I fantasize about building a house on the beach for vacations with my husband.  I wonder how we could fly to this island with our dog so that she can play in the sand.  At this point, I am so caught up in thinking that I no longer see the scene that evoked my thoughts.

As the heat of the sun intensifies, aversion arises, with thoughts about how to change the unpleasant experience.  I think about fetching a sunhat and applying more sun block cream, and I look around to find a shady palm tree to shelter me.  I worry that I could be sunburned, which might lead to skin cancer and possibly surgery.  By now, I am so immersed in thoughts that I am generating emotions of fear about a future that I have invented.  I no longer sense the warm sand under my feet, and I don’t even notice the view that so attracted me a short while ago.

Suddenly, I catch myself thinking, and I return to sensations and sights just as they are in the present moment, acknowledging that there is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences.  Once again I can appreciate the fullness of this moment.

Because we spend hours lost in thoughts about grasping what feels pleasant or escaping what is unpleasant, we tend to miss the real pleasure in that very moment.  Freeing a thought from sense desires does not mean suppressing them or pretending that they are not there.  We can acknowledge sense desires and consciously release our grasp.

With practice, we notice that physical sensations such as contraction, tension or pressure are associated with certain kinds of thoughts; while sensations of openness or fluidity are related to other kinds of thoughts.

At any point, we can wake up, notice the thoughts in our mind, and return to our body sensations as a refuge.  If I am driving, I can let go of problem solving and connect with the sensation of my hands on the driver’s wheel or my foot on the accelerator.  If I am walking, I can let go of planning what I want to do when I arrive at my destination, and I can sense the movement in my legs and arms or the contact of my shoes on the ground.

In meditation, we may become aware of the “top ten” themes that replay in our heads.  So many of our thoughts are familiar because we think them repeatedly.  These repetitions rarely contribute anything to our understanding or our happiness.  My teacher Jack Kornfield suggested that I give a brief name to each repetitive theme, so that I can identify it and let it go more easily.  For instance, when I notice that I’m worrying if the condition of my ailing dog Marisol will worsen, I can note “dog” and let go of the thought.  Such worries aren’t helpful to me or to my dog.

The more we can let go of habitual thoughts, the more space there is for original ideas to arise.  Consider when you last had an original thought….

If it is hard to renounce a repetitive thought, complex emotions may lie beneath the theme.  At such times, it is skillful to pause for openhearted investigation of layers of emotions.  We may recognize anger or hatred underlying certain memories or plans.  With Right Thought, we can channel these emotions skillfully and let them go, so that we do not harm ourselves or others.

Sometimes habitual thought patterns are so strong that we must act like spiritual warriors to renounce them.  When we repeat negative thoughts often enough, their familiarity creates the illusion that they are solid and “true.”   But, as a meditation teacher, Arinna Weisman, says, “There are absolutely no negative patterns that are true.  One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is to renounce negative thought patterns.”

It helps me to remember that the Buddha called on the earth as his witness while he sat under the Bodhi tree and renounced an onslaught of doubts and temptations. We can try saying out loud, “No, I will not follow this negative thought.  I call on my inner resources to resist it.”  Faced with such determination, thoughts tend to dissipate and reveal their impermanent nature.

In the third stage of Right Thought or Right Intention, we can cultivate joy, appreciation, and gratitude by praying or by focusing on counting our blessings and appreciating the qualities of those we love.  Because the Buddha understood the power of inclining the mind towards positive thinking, he taught four ancient practices called the Divine Abodes or Brahma Viharas to develop loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.  In Pali, the language of the Buddha’s teachings, loving kindness practice is called Metta.

We will conclude this talk with a short, guided Metta meditation.

Close your eyes, and sense your heart beating in your chest.  You might be aware of warmth in that area.  Classic Metta practice has five stages of opening the heart.  Tonight we will focus on the initial stage: sending good wishes to ourselves.

The Buddha said, “You can search the entire universe and not find a single being more worthy of love than you are yourself.”  It is through loving ourselves that we radiate love outward towards others.

If you encounter resistance to sending yourself love, it may be helpful to visualize yourself as a small and innocent child, perhaps recalling a photo of yourself when you were very young.

And now, directing Metta phrases towards yourself:

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may I be safe.

From all suffering, may I be free.

Let the last word of each phrase resonate in your heart.  Repeat 2X.

Then you might add the following words:

May I forgive myself for any unskillful thoughts, words or deeds, which have harmed myself or others, and remember that I did the best I could with the level of consciousness that I had in that moment.

Send yourself loving wishes and forgiveness, then exhale and let go of the image of yourself, returning to the sensation of your heart with its pulsation and warmth…

Are there any questions or comments about the second step on the Noble Eightfold Path?

The first Monday of each month, instead of giving a Dharma talk, I will guide the group in practicing one of the Divine Abodes.