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July 12, 2015

One Practice has Made me a Better Person.

Thought bubbles

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” ~ The Buddha

“Wow, I love your haircut!” She said, a bit too enthusiastically. (She would later tell her friend that she hated it.)

I smiled widely at a new acquaintance to hide my true thoughts. I didn’t like her, though I couldn’t yet explain why—my judgmental mind had already drawn its conclusions.

They chatted lightly about nothing, but their faces revealed darker internal dialogues. He felt jealousy simmering in the back of his throat, she felt spite creeping up her spine. But as long as their words were polite and civil, it was okay if their thoughts were less so.

We have all been there.

We try to be kind, compassionate and conscious human beings, but our thoughts are not always so quick to cooperate. Judgment, jealousy, spite and hatred easily blossom in quiet corners of our mind—dark blooms beneath shining surfaces.

In Buddhist philosophy, there exists the concept of Right Intention, or Right Thought (sammā sankappa, Pali). Attaining Right Thought involves a practitioner’s ridding themselves of qualities, thoughts or intentions they know to be wrong (what is “wrong” is a longer discussion, but for now let’s each follow our own moral compass). Along with Right View, Right Thought is one of the first two of the Noble Eightfold Path—eight dimensions of behavior that, when developed simultaneously, can lead to the cessation of suffering (dukkha, Pali).

I don’t expect to reach that goal anytime soon, nor, to be honest, do I aspire to it, but I have found in this philosophy a practical wisdom that applies to my daily life.

Growing up, I was always careful to speak kindly to others—politeness being tantamount in the American value system—but it was only much later that I began to apply the same care to my thoughts. I would never show my dislike or distaste, but I would certainly allow it to cloud my mind. I took great pains to be “nice,” but allowed spiteful or judgmental thoughts to pass unremarked; after all, no one could read my thoughts, so they weren’t hurting anyone, right?

Wrong. We are our thoughts.

Unspoken words are as poisonous as spoken ones—if not more so—and they injure both the thinker and the subject. I wish I could remember the teacher who first introduced me to this practice, so that I could give them proper credit, but I hope I honor their impact by sharing their wisdom.

In any kind of mindfulness practice—meditation, yoga, martial arts and many others—we strive to be aware of the body and mind. Sometimes that means watching the breath, sometimes it means moving with a deep spatial awareness.

In this practice, the guidelines are simple, but their implementation can prove intensely challenging.

As we might watch the breath or body, so too we can observe our thoughts. We initiate a five-step process:

1. When our thoughts are unkind, unhelpful, spiteful or cruel, we notice them. (This runs contrary to the common habit of leaving most of our thoughts unexamined.) These thoughts may be directed toward others, or ourselves.

2. We ask if these thoughts are justified or useful in any way. (Usually, these thoughts are impulsive and biased, rooted in insecurity or fear—not truth.) We examine our own mind, seeking the real source of this unkindness.

3. We laugh at our impulsiveness, our fear, and reveal a nonconstructive thought for the superficial nonsense it is.

4. We let the thought go. Or, usually, the thought dissolves of its own accord once we pay attention to it.

5. Lastly, maybe, we replace the thought with compassion, or at least allow for understanding to grow in the space it has left.

We all have unkind thoughts, of course, and that doesn’t make us bad people. And it’s not necessarily “wrong” to dislike someone’s haircut, find a stranger’s voice unappealing, or feel jealousy or spite. These things are natural. However, I do believe that consciously examining, rooting out and replacing useless internal negativity has made me more compassionate, and less judgmental.

As in meditation or yoga, this mindfulness becomes easier over time—the process of letting go of useless thoughts faster. I don’t expect I will ever master the practice, but each day I live in awareness of my thoughts, I feel a little lighter, a bit freer of the weight of harshness. Each time I notice and laugh away unjustified unkindness (and most, if not all, unkindness is unjustified), I feel how those thoughts impact me most of all.

Our inner dialogues define us, though they may remain hidden. The most vicious poison is silent as it is invisible. By calling attention to it, we render it powerless. By releasing it, we become better people.

I have applied the same process to moments of ego, and it works equally well. When the ego becomes inflated, we can notice that, ask if it is useful or damaging, laugh at ourselves, and let the ego go, coming back to a more balanced frame of mind.

If the practice appeals to you, try it. Watching my thoughts has proved an incredibly powerful process in my life. I hope it may serve you as well.

“If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” ~ Roald Dahl

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Relephant Read:

The Positive Side to Negative Thoughts.

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Author: Toby Israel

Editor: Renee Jahnke

Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr

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