There are many different ways we are asked this question… How can I block negative thoughts? What do we do with negative thinking in meditation? How do I stop thinking in meditation? We are asked these types of questions quite a bit, especially when we teach at a few of the non 12 step rehab centers we work with, and we thought it may be of use to elaborate and answer in a bit more depth.
There are a few different questions here to consider, but they’re all great questions. First, let me say that in responding, I am responding from a position based on my experience with Theravada Buddhist meditation. There are many forms of meditation with a variety of different methods of meditation. Second, although these questions are not all the same, they are all related to the thinking mind. Dealing with thoughts seems to be a struggle for most people new to meditation. These are good questions to be asking, and intending to better understand the thinking mind is a very wholesome intention. At the bottom of this post, we have left a few resources that we’ve found helpful with these questions.
How to Block Negative Thoughts
This is perhaps the question we are asked most. We receive it via email, on social media, in groups, and with our one-on-one practicioners. No matter who you are, you experience what you may refer to as negative thoughts. Let’s consider first what we are calling “negative” thoughts. In my experience, people often are referring to thoughts of judgement, resentment, worry, and fear. Sometimes these thoughts arise in relation to others, and sometimes they are thoughts about ourselves. It can be helpful to first drop the label of the thoughts being negative. When we call them negative, our tendency is to avert from them or push them away. We may benefit from perhaps referring to them as unpleasant thoughts instead. When we note the vedana, or feeling tone, of unpleasant we no longer are labeling the thoughts as something that we are habituated to push away. That is, we can immediately work on changing our relationship to the thinking mind with the simple words we choose to use.
Next, we must understand the nature of meditation practice. There are two separate practices that ask for different responses to the thinking mind. First, there is mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness practice, the thinking mind is part of the practice. As the British monk Ajahn Sumedho says, “Everything belongs.” In mindfulness practice, our intention is to cultivate awareness and recognition of our experience. Are thoughts not part of your experience? In the Satipatthana Sutta (the discourse on establishing mindfulness), the Buddha tells us to bring awareness to the mental objects in mindfulness practice. Whether the thoughts are pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, or mixed, we aren’t to resist them or push them away. We can bring awareness to them, looking at the arising thoughts with some gentleness and wisdom. With mindfulness practice the answer to this question “How can I block negative thoughts?” is that you simply should not. It may be helpful to look at these unpleasant thoughts closely. See if you can notice the arising of the thought, the moment you find it unpleasant, and the tendency of the mind to label it as negative. Maybe you can see the aversion arising, some way in which you try to push the thought away or resist it.
There’s also concentration practice, in which our response may be a bit different. With concentration meditation, we are cultivating a mind that is able to focus on an object with sustained attention. We most often practice with the breath when cultivating concentration. When unpleasant thoughts arise during concentration practice, we take a bit of a different approach. Rather than investigating the thought and tuning into it deeply, we leave it be. This doesn’t mean we push it away; rather, we notice the thought is there and return to the breath. You may see the thoughts as bubbles, just floating on by. You don’t need to hook into the thought. Practice returning to breath with kindness when the mind does get hooked in. Don’t push the thought away, but leave it be.
Meditation for Positive Thinking
On the other side of the same proverbial coin, we receive questions about meditations on positive thinking. As we discussed in a post about positive thinking, trying to think positive all the time isn’t necessarily healthy. My personal opinion is that every human being experiences unpleasant thoughts at times. If we strive for only positive thinking, we are missing the point of mindfulness practice. I do understand the question. I get waves of unpleasant thinking patterns that sometimes get the best of me. It’s not comfortable. Rather than trying to push away the unpleasant thinking and clinging to the pleasant thoughts, we can put our effort forth to detach from the thinking mind.
It may help to investigate impermanence and not-self, two of the three marks of existence. Thoughts are products of the thinking mind. We can practice not identifying with each one that arises. Yes, it is often more difficult and unpleasant when our thoughts are on the negative side. Instead of seeking to only have positive thoughts, perhaps through practice you can not put such heavy weight on each thought that arises. When we see things clearly, we see that thoughts are just thoughts.
It may also be helpful to practice metta toward ourselves and the thoughts. You can do this by simply offering yourself the traditional phrases of metta, or you can direct the phrases specifically at the thoughts that arise. You may offer the intention of kindness and gentleness toward the thoughts as they arise. What this does is helps us to respond more gently to the arising thoughts and not react so strongly.
How to Quiet Your Mind
This is one of my personal favorite questions to receive because I struggled with this concept for quite some time myself. When I sat down to meditate, it felt as if the mind began working overtime. The thoughts came up rapidly, never seeming to cease. Whether they were resentments, worries about the future, fantasies or planning, my silent meditation practice felt mostly like a thinking session.
Again, there are two different practices that call for different approaches to the thinking mind. I often recommend to my students that they start with some concentration practice. When beginning a meditation practice, it’s important to remember that it is a practice. If the mind was already perfectly concentrated, a concentration practice would be completely unnecessary. In concentration practice we are cultivating a mind that can concentrate, not showing off an already concentrated mind! Practice concentration, letting the mind think normally. One of the keys I have found in my concentration practice is to respond with gentleness. Rather than pinning the mind down forcibly on the breath, I try to gently rest the awareness on the breath. When the mind begins thinking, we can stay with the breath and leave the thoughts be. When we get wrapped up in the thinking mind, all we have to do is return to the breath. Sharon Salzberg says in her book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, or a week, or ten thousand years—we turn on the light and it is illuminated.” It is like this with the wandering mind. When we bring the mind back to the breath, we have brought it back. It doesn’t matter how long the mind wandered.
In mindfulness practice, we don’t need to stop the thinking mind. We may quiet the mind a bit by not reacting and cultivating an aware state, but the goal isn’t to stop the thinking mind. Thoughts are part of experience, and we can bring awareness to the thoughts just as we would with anything else. To quiet the mind really just means seeing the mind and the thoughts more clearly. We don’t stop the thoughts; we bring awareness to them.
There are tons of meditation resources out there. I super recommend listening to guided meditations to start, as many find it helpful to have a walkthrough of the practice. Here are a few books we love that may help shed some light on these issues and practices:
–Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg is a great book that investigates metta and the heart practices, written by who I consider to be the “master of metta” here in the West.
–Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas by Leigh Brasington is a deep investigation of concentration practice with pragmatic tips and walkthroughs that I have found very helpful.
–Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization by Analayo is an in-depth look at the Buddha’s words on establishing mindfulness. This book is fairly dense and scholarly, but one of my absolute favorite books on dharma that can really help us understand what this word “mindfulness” means.