Saturday, November 7, 2009

Your Thoughts Are Not Facts

Not long ago, I was leading a meditation at a yoga studio, when there was a loud bang in the next room. All of us in the group heard the sound, and after the practice was over I asked everyone what they thought the sound was. Each person who answered had come up with a different interpretation of the event.

This is a good example of how our thoughts are not facts. The fact was that there was a sound. Then the mind took over and started categorizing the sound, trying to identify it. There were stories that arose from the mind's interpretation (my story being that there was a gas line explosion and we were going to have to evacuate the building). Memories were evoked, preferences, judgments about the sound being good or bad...All this based on a factual event that lasted less than a second.

In our meditation practice, we get a chance to see clearly (vipassana means "to see clearly" in the Pali language) how the mind does these sorts of things. A sensation in the body arises, such as a leg falling asleep, and the mind creates a whole scenario of disaster around it. A sound arises, and the mind creates stories about it, or says, "I like that sound" or "I don't like that one." And none of these thoughts are facts, aside from the fact that they are thoughts.

It is true that we can have thoughts about facts, but these are still just thoughts. Thoughts can become facts, but the thought is still a thought, not the fact itself. The problem is that our minds have been thinking thoughts for so long, that we have come to believe them as being facts, and when we have upsetting thoughts, they can really convince us that they are true facts.

So we have to cultivate a new relationship to our thoughts. When we are to see them as objects of awareness, not as concrete facts (my thanks to Segal, Williams, and Teasdale for this), then we can begin to look at our thoughts and ask, "Is there any fact here?" We can begin to see thoughts as merely another arising event, just like the bang in the other room.

Through our meditation practice of returning to the breath over and over when the mind wanders (usually to a random thought), we can learn how to disengage from the thinking mind by returning to a present moment sensory reality (such as the breath). When we get up off the cushion, we can put this process to work for us as well.

Doing this kind of disengagement in daily life takes a lot of practice. As they say, it is simple, but not easy. When we begin to make this disengagement more of a habit, however, we can begin to decrease our levels of anxiety, anger, and frustration.

The next time you are feeling an upsetting emotion, such as anxiety or anger, become aware of the thoughts that you are having. Then turn your attention toward a sensory experience: touch something, taste something, smell something, hear or see something real. These sensory experiences are facts. Your upsetting thought will just drop away and be forgotten (at least momentarily). This will take some repeating with difficult or old, habitual thoughts. Have patience and compassion, and be forgiving of yourself.

From The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Translation by W.Y. Evans-Wentz):
The visions you experience exist within your consciousness. . . These visions have no reality outside your consciousness. No matter how frightening some of them may seem they cannot hurt you. . . Just let them pass through your consciousness like clouds passing through an empty sky. Fundamentally they have no more reality than this. . . No matter how far you wander, the light is only a split second, a half-breath away. It is never too late to recognize the clear light.

No comments:

Post a Comment