Converting Thoughts, Skillfully ~ Donna Quesada

Via elephant journal
on May 19, 2011
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Photo: Minoru Nitta

We are what we think, The Dhammapada begins. All that we are arises with our thoughts.

Yet, at the same time, a thought is nothing other than a passing wave of the mind, Suzuki Roshi says, in the classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I remember another Zen master likening thoughts to bodily secretions. He was reminding us not to take them seriously. A thought is nothing other than an inconsequential emission, like sweat, which evaporates on its own, or a burp, which is gone as quickly as it arises, without asingle trace.

It is why in Zen meditation we don’t try and stop our thoughts. Like a revolving door, they will come and they will go, of their own accord. Those incessant emissions don’t define us any more than the steam from a boiling cup of tea defines the quality of the tea leaf.

Or do they?

Perhaps thoughts are more like the emissions from an old Chevy…black and heavy, betraying our old, outdated, carburetor engine, and the total lack of smog control. The smoke and soot sullies up everything, and we breathe in all the black pollution.

As The Dhammapada suggests, our thoughts give us away and we can hide our identity no more than a ’57 Chevy can hide its smoke. We think ugly thoughts and we wear them.

Photo: rmhealing

The Resolution:

Thoughts are passing waves, but there’s a catch… if we let them pass. They come and they go… if we avoid getting attached to them. And this is where mindfulness starts. With this realization, we can avoid the karma that clings to us, like gum getting stuck to our shoes, every time we fixate on those thoughts.

So both ideas are true. They can live together, side by side, without conflict. Like a light wave, there’s no necessary contradiction with regard to the different viewpoints: it’s a wave or a particle, depending on which way you look at it.

Our thoughts are only secretions when we recognize them as such and then let them go—a useful trick, when it comes to what Buddhists would call unskillful thoughts, and what the Yogis would refer to as negative thoughts.

The problem surfaces when we habituate. Then we get stuck; then we get in our own way; we prevent ourselves from moving along; we wear it on our faces; we exude it in our demeanor, and it affects every aspect of our relationships, our lives and our worlds.

Seen in this way, our thoughts have tremendous power and define us, if we let them. So we can let them, in a skillful way, or in an unskillful way.

That’s where spiritual training comes in. As one of my favorite yogis, Swami Sivananda, reminds us in Thought Power, by raising only thoughts of mercy, love and kindness, we bring happiness upon ourselves and others. Conversely, when we are stewing in hatred, pain is sure to follow. In this way, we use thoughts conscientiously, with deliberate aim.

Similarly, in Kundalini Yoga, we are taught to convert negative thought forms and tendencies, rather than fight against them or wait for them to go away on their own; we use them skillfully to good purpose.

For example, we may put the tendency toward anger to good use, by directing that anger toward ourselves for not being more patient, or we may turn our greed into the noble desire to become enlightened. So, it seems we have two choices, we can let negative thoughts settle on their own,without the validation of judging them, or even naming them. Or, we can convert them.

In both cases, we are willfully using our mind rather than the other way around. We are the master and we are working with our thoughts in a decisive way. Whatever you give attention to thrives—especially habit patterns. Water the grass and it grows. Water the weeds and they grow. Water the thoughts and we become those thoughts.

Donna Quesada is an instructor of eastern philosophy and hatha yoga, kundalini yoga teacher-trainee, Zen practitioner, and author of  Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers.


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5 Responses to “Converting Thoughts, Skillfully ~ Donna Quesada”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Donna, Your introduction was nicely written. I am not sure your view on the practicle application of converting negative thoughts into a positive will give you the result, at least as you stated in the final couple of paragraphs, you are looking for. Whether we turn anger towards another or one's self it is still anger no matter how it is dressed up with positive intention. I am aware of the idea of "turning poison into medicine" but I am not sure that the poison you are practically addressing is going to become medicine with the method you describe. It seems that it will remain as poison but with a different label on the bottle. Then what is to be done with "positive thoughts"? You do not address the arising of positive thought. Is positive thought, in your view, not a concern?

  2. Hi Padma,
    Thanks for taking the time to read my article and for sharing your thoughts on thoughts!
    The point of the article was simply to explore the apparent dichotomy between the ideas that we both are, and are not, our thoughts. The key is in the way we attach to them, but also, in the way we react to them. Some of the yogic traditions offer unbelievably rich accounts of the mechanism of a thought. For example, it is explained that the mind (and different aspects of the mind, at that!) activates the intellect to produce thoughts, which produce emotions, which produce desires, and which, finally, in their turn, produce action. The problem is that the mind has attachments and biases as well as traces of the past stored in the subconscious.

    The positive, negative and neutral aspects of mind then divide themselves up, and to simplify what, at this point gets messy, the thoughts gets clouded. We become "reactive." But we are reacting to the fogginess, rather than to the thought itself. There is lack of clarity. There is inappropriate action, and there is pain.

    And this is the world.

    But there is hope! If we learn—ideally, through meditation practice (enter the teacher)—to "catch" thoughts at a timely juncture, for example, before emotions turn into desires, and then to action, we can begin to see things as they are, rather than in their mirky, shadow form. In other words, we can avoid the reactive mind. This is called learning to see, developing the intuition, the meditative mind, the "neutral mind."

    It tempers the extremes naturally, as we are less likely to succumb to our paranoia.

    As for positive thoughts specifically (although I think what I said above renders this redundant), even some of the western philosophers (Aristotle) recognized the possibility of too much of a good thing—in this case, the expansiveness of the positive mind sliding into its shadow side, where boundaries are lost.

    I'm not even going to proof-read—this is getting too long!
    Thanks again,
    Sat Nam and Namaste my friend,

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