There is a particular discourse, titled, Vitakkasanthāna Sutta, that is taught as the Buddha’s way of working with thoughts in meditation, for when I teach in a more traditional or orthodox setting, I encounter people who swear by it and take me to task on it. So, I am now going to face my biggest critic, the Buddha himself, as he is interpreted by scholars and lay meditation teachers alike. When this discourse is viewed with unprejudiced eyes regarding thinking in meditation, the Buddha may actually be saying something closer to what I have been saying all along: Get to know your thoughts in meditation, but be careful how you handle unwholesome thoughts.
To begin with, each translator of this discourse makes his bias known in how he translates the title. Soma Thera shows his antipathy toward thoughts by choosing to name it, “The Removal of Distracting Thoughts,” while Thanissaro Bhikkhu offers an unbiased literal translation of “The Relaxation of Thoughts.” Just in the title alone, if someone read Soma Thera’s translation, they would be looking for ways to remove distracting thoughts that get in the way of meditating on a particular meditation object. But even this does not lend support to the notion that all thinking should be eliminated in meditation. According to Soma Thera’s translation: “…the evil unskillful thoughts are eliminated; they disappear.” The emphasis in the discourse is thus not about eliminating all types of thinking, but only “evil unskillful thoughts” that are connected with “desire, hate, and delusion.” Unfortunately, a view that all of our thinking is connected with desire, hate, and delusion has crept in and muddied this picture for certain Buddhist meditation practitioners, so, for them, the broad stroke of eliminating all thoughts seems to be in order.
Venerable Thanissaro’s translation of the Pāli word, santhāna, as “relaxation” is much closer to one of the original meanings of the word, which refers to a “resting place, a meeting place, a public place (market).” This notion of a “resting place” as a place where one stops at the end of journey probably gave rise to a secondary, more abstract meaning of “stopping” or “ceasing” when the word santhāna is applied to thoughts. Surely in the minds of those who seek a pure mind that is absolutely free of thoughts, the Buddha could not be talking about “meeting your thoughts at a resting place.” But what if that is exactly what he meant to those who first listened to him? The Buddha speaks in this discourse about “resting with” (though people have tended to see this discourse more as “wrestling with”) all kinds of thoughts and what to do when unwholesome and unskillful ones catch hold of you.
This way of resting with thoughts is found in the first “instruction” on what to do with thinking. The Buddha is careful to say that it is not a passive affair, where one would allow unwholesome and unskillful thoughts to completely lead one astray, but, I believe, he also does not say that it is an active one either, where the meditator replaces unwholesome thoughts with more wholesome ones, such as practicing loving-kindness at the first sign of an angry thought. It is somewhere in the middle; and yet, like many things in the middle way, it is entirely different than either extreme.
I will use Venerable Thanissaro’s translation throughout this chapter, as his title, “The Relaxation of Thoughts,” best captures a middle way orientation to being with thoughts in meditation. His wording of the sutta passages is more complicated than Soma Thera’s translation (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation is greatly indebted to Soma Thera’s and uses the same title), and will require a bit more concentration on your part, and work on my part, to get at what is being said.
After the initial statement about where this discourse takes place, common to most suttas found in the Majjhima Nikāya (Middle Length Sayings), where this sutta is found, the Buddha gives an introductory overview of what he will cover in this day’s talk:
“When a monk is intent on the heightened mind, there are five themes he should attend to at the appropriate times. Which five?”
Before I go on, there is some confusion created in this discourse by the Pāli word nimitta, which Thanissaro translates as “theme” (Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it more traditionally as “sign” and Soma Thera, in this instance, translates it as “thing,” and later on as “object”). It would be clearer to translate the last part of the preceding passage: “…there are five strategies he should employ at the appropriate time.” This makes the most sense, as the Buddha goes on to describe one strategy after another for dealing with recurring and pernicious unwholesome thoughts, basically saying that when one strategy fails, here is what you should do next.
After this opening statement, there is an assumption regarding the meditator’s practice that needs to be clarified: “There is the case where evil, unskillful thoughts–imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion–arise in a monk while he is referring to and attending to a particular theme.” I believe the assumption here is that the meditator is either attending to the breath, a prescribed contemplation, a loving-kindness practice, or more in keeping with the language of this discourse, a jhāna practice of staying with a particular image, light, color, perception (nimitta), etc. The unwholesome thoughts are coming up and taking his attention away from concentrating on his prescribed object of meditation. It would then follow that each of the five strategies is designed to bring his attention back to his primary object of meditation, so that “…he steadies his mind right within, settles it, unifies it, and concentrates it.” Without a doubt in my mind, this discourse is referring to samatha practice rather than vipassanā meditation. Its direction leads to tranquility (samatha) and the procedures are essentially done in the service of settling, unifying, and concentrating the mind, which are the key features of a samatha practice.
This whole discourse may not really be applicable to an open awareness meditation practice, such as recollective awareness meditation. And, if it is applicable to an open, highly unstructured meditation practice, then it relates to the processes by which a meditator divests himself of unwholesome and unskillful thoughts and arrives at settled, calm states of mind, even without relying on a primary object of meditation. So, for now on in writing about this discourse, rather than perceiving it as a critique of this approach to meditation, we can view it as mostly speaking to a practice of concentrating on a primary object of meditation, with some relevance regarding what happens when we do allow thoughts and emotions, especially the negative variety, into our meditation sittings. So instead of taking it as prescriptive, I would like to look at these strategies as descriptive of what you may find yourself doing in meditation in regard to thinking.
In Thanissaro’s words, the first strategy goes something like this: “If evil, unskillful thoughts–imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion–arise in a monk while he is referring to and attending to a particular theme, he should attend to another theme, apart from that one, connected with what is skillful.” The strategy here is to bring your attention to a different theme than the meditation object you are using. This would be traditionally interpreted as a practice of replacing unwholesome thoughts with wholesome ones. So if you are focusing on the breath, and have some persistent angry thoughts, then the instruction is to bring your attention to another theme, such as loving-kindness. You would then intentionally practice loving-kindness meditation until “those evil, unskillful thoughts–imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion–are abandoned and subside. With their abandoning, he steadies his mind right within, settles it, unifies it, and concentrates it.” When those unskillful thoughts subside, your mind becomes settled and focused, which quite naturally happens when you divest your mind of troublesome thoughts, inner conflict, and emotional turmoil. In this particular sutta, there is no instruction regarding what to do when your mind is thus settled and concentrated, but the assumption is that you would return to the original theme of the meditation sitting, which in this case would be awareness of the breath.
In an open meditation practice like recollective awareness, a similar procedure of shifting your attention to a skillful “theme” when sitting with persistent and intense unskillful thoughts would eventually occur. But it won’t happen by deciding what the new theme will be. Instead, it comes about by noticing the skillful or wholesome states of mind that are already present while you are thinking unskillful thoughts. So while you have thoughts of disliking somebody on account of something he said, you may also be aware that there is some compassion for yourself for the unkind feelings you are having, or some interest in why you are thinking those unkind thoughts, or perhaps a sense of the suffering involved in entertaining such thoughts and their possible actions, or any such skillful theme that is also present. These skillful themes will arise on their own–there is no need to insert them into your meditation or try to create them at the first instance of feeling angry or upset. If you can be patient and tolerant of your experience, they should arise, though they may be subtle and hard to notice at first. And often when there is a shift from the persistent unskillful thought process to the more skillful one, you may notice a settling down of your mind and a growing calmness. But you may only be aware of this transition after you have been free of the persistent thoughts for a while. Sometimes, the calm state that follows has a sleep-like quality to it, so that you might not easily recall how you shifted from feeling angry and upset at someone to being calm and drifting.
Now if this first strategy doesn’t work, the Buddha recommends a second strategy: “he should scrutinize the drawbacks of those thoughts: ‘Truly, these thoughts of mine are unskillful, these thoughts of mine are blameworthy, these thoughts of mine result in stress.'” It seems to me that the Buddha is recommending shifting your attention from a primary object, such as the breath, to looking carefully into the thoughts you are having that are particularly unskillful. He is not advocating this strategy for all thoughts, but for those that are truly “dangerous” (adinavo, which Thanissaro translates more neutrally as “drawbacks”). To me, dangerous thoughts are those that are undeniably unskillful, which inevitably lead to regrettable words and deeds, and will only end up creating more stress or suffering. Experientially, when having such thoughts, there may be no ability to be kind, interested, or patient. This is not an ordinary situation, where you could possibly summon up some good skillful quality of mind. It is one where you are swept up in something dangerous, such as a revenge scenario, or a sexual fantasy that involves cheating on a partner or engaging in sex with an inappropriate person. What is recommended here, I believe, is meeting these thoughts and resting with them in a way that you can look at them squarely and see their consequences. Only through such scrutiny will they subside. It may take a while, and you might not be successful…
In that context, there is the third strategy: “he should pay no mind and pay no attention to those thoughts.” This is an interesting suggestion at this point in the process; whereas, if this strategy was given at the beginning, people could just say that the Buddha first recommends paying no attention to unskillful thoughts. But he doesn’t. He recommends withdrawing attention from those thoughts only after one has looked deeply into them, having examined them and seen clearly the danger in them, and not before. It is fairly common in recollective awareness meditation for someone to sit with unskillful thoughts for several sittings in row, tolerating them and having periods of exploring them, as well as some short breaks from them. Then it becomes possible to decide not to get involved in them anymore, and they fade away. I believe it is this kind of process that the Buddha may actually be referring to here: disentangling from powerful and persistent unskillful thoughts may come after having met them appropriately with skillful qualities and investigating them.
But what if they keep cropping up again when you have withdrawn your attention from them at this point in the process? That is where this fourth strategy comes in: “he should attend to the relaxing of thought-fabrication with regard to those thoughts.” I am not sure if “thought-fabrication” is a suitable translation here. What follows as a description of relaxing the thought-fabrication is this: “Just as the thought would occur to a man walking quickly, ‘Why am I walking quickly? Why don’t I walk slowly?’ So he walks slowly. The thought occurs to him, ‘Why am I walking slowly? Why don’t I stand?’ So he stands. The thought occurs to him, ‘Why am I standing? Why don’t I sit down?’ So he sits down. The thought occurs to him, ‘Why am I sitting? Why don’t I lie down?’ So he lies down. In this way, giving up the grosser posture, he takes up the more refined one.” Though it sounds simple, I think this is actually a bit confusing, so I will try to explain what I construe the Buddha to mean here.
My sense here is that the person should direct his attention to the speed, rhythm, or tone of his thoughts. So it is not “thought-fabrication” that is relaxed, but rather the active process of thinking those thoughts. Instead of exploring what one is thinking about, to explore the voice that is speaking the thoughts. This voice has a speech rhythm, a tone or attitude, and will remind you of somebody else or of yourself at certain times. Putting your attention on these aspects of the unskillful thoughts can have the effect of gradually slowing them down until they stop altogether. The idea of lying down being a refined posture would only be the case if it is a metaphor for the mind becoming settled and still.
Now if that doesn’t work, the Buddha seems to recommend a very extreme last resort: “With his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth–he should beat down, constrain, and crush his mind with his awareness.” The simile for this action is also a bit drastic and out of place for a paragon of peace and compassion. It reads, “Just as a strong man, seizing a weaker man by the head or the throat or the shoulders, would beat him down, constrain, and crush him; in the same way…”
I hope your experience meditating with unskillful thoughts never gets to the point where this seems like a sane and practical approach. If it does, remember that the Buddha is saying “crush his mind with his awareness,” and not with self-hatred, shame, or any self-destructive or aggressive thought. I would like to think that the Buddha is suggesting that you be so aware of the unskillful, unwholesome, dangerous, and despicable thoughts, staring them right in face, that they are beaten down, constrained, crushed.
The end of this discourse has something relevant to say about this whole process of meeting your thoughts in meditation and having them relax. For when one has done this, it is said: “He is then called a monk with mastery over the ways of thought sequences. He thinks whatever thought he wants to, and doesn’t think whatever thought he doesn’t. He has severed craving, thrown off the fetters, and–through the right penetration of conceit–has made an end of suffering and stress.”
This article is an excerpt from Thoughts Are Not the Enemy, by Jason Siff, published in May 2014. © 2014 by Jason Siff. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA