My wife sent me this most wonderful article that is full of clarity and insight about our thoughts. Please take the time to read this whole post. I promise you will feel more expanded for doing so. You can find our more about this author at this site.
SURRENDER THAT THOUGHT
by Elias Amidon
What is it that makes us feel uneasy, worried, anxious, angry, defensive, jealous, or judgmental? Is it because conditions in the world around us, and the actions of people we encounter, make us feel these feelings? Or is there something else at work?
When we look into the nature of “afflictive emotions” like these, the first thing we notice is that they are always accompanied by thoughts. The second thing we notice is that these thoughts are slippery things, often hard to identify even when exposed to careful introspection and inquiry. The third thing we notice is that we believe in these thoughts. We simply assume that they are the “good reasons” for why we feel uneasy, worried, anxious, etc. But this masks what is really going on: it is not the thoughts themselves, but our belief in them, that creates afflictive emotions. If we don’t believe in our thoughts, they lose their charge; they no longer have the power to stir up emotional and psychological suffering.
You can check this out for yourself by recalling a time a few years ago when you felt anxious or jealous or angry about something. Notice that now you don’t feel those feelings. Why? Because you no longer believe the thoughts that accompanied them; they simply don’t matter to you anymore. Over time, they have lost their charge.
This simple dynamic—that believing our thoughts leads to emotional and psychological suffering—might give us a clue for how to relieve present suffering. But to do so we need to look a little deeper into the nature of thoughts themselves, and into how it is we believe them.
We humans think a lot (at least we think we think), but do we really know what thinking is? Do we know how we think? Let’s try a little experiment here: think of something, anything, and see if you can find where that thought came from. Did you create it on purpose? How? Why did that particular thought appear and not a different one? Look carefully. See if you can discover the exact place or moment in which you “make” a specific thought.
As I attempt this myself, looking to see how I discover the next words in this sentence, I can’t find how I do it. First the word is not there, and then it is. Sometimes a word comes and it seems okay, but after a few moments I discover it is not exactly right, and I try another word or phrase. The new word or phrase appears just as magically as the first one, out of nowhere!
Here’s another seemingly magical quality of thought: watch the stream of thoughts in your mind and see if you can find where a particular thought goes after it’s finished. What do you find? It vanishes! The little thought leaves no trace, simply dissolving into thin air.
If you’ve stayed with this experiment so far, you might see that your thoughts are less substantial than you assumed. They come out of nowhere and vanish into nowhere.
This insubstantiality of thoughts is easy to see with the random thoughts of our experiment, but it is much more difficult to see with thoughts that matter, thoughts we believe in. When our thoughts tell us we’re not good enough, or that we have to improve ourselves, or that other people are not good enough, or this is to blame, or that is wrong, or something bad might happen, these kinds of thoughts seem to stick to us. This stickiness is our belief in them. We cling to them with our belief, our interest, our sense that they represent the truth.
Huang Po, the 9th Century Zen master, once remarked, “Your sole concern should be, as thought succeeds thought, to avoid clinging to any of them.”
How can we do that? How can we avoid clinging to our thoughts, especially when our well-being seems to be at stake? Here is where it is helpful to practice a little, first with less “important” thoughts, and then with the ones that we firmly believe in.
I call this practice “Surrender That Thought.” It is a deceptively simple practice. You might wish to try it now, after you finish reading the rest of this paragraph. Simply pause for a few moments, resting in your natural, clear state of mind. Wait. At some point you will notice a thought happening. As soon as you notice it, no matter what it is about, surrender your interest in it. I don’t mean that you should try to stop the thought from happening or deny it. Just let go of your interest in it. (If you believe it’s a really important thought and you feel you can’t afford to let go of your interest in it, tell yourself you’ll pick it up again in five minutes.) Surrender that thought. Some students have asked me, “What do I surrender the thought to?" It’s not necessary to think of it that way; there is nothing you need to surrender the thought to. Simply let it go; relinquish your interest in it; abandon your belief—even momentarily—in its veracity, its truth. Now notice carefully what happens.
In the instant of surrendering your interest in the thought, you may notice that a subtle sense of openness occurs. This sense may be quite brief—another thought may quickly take its place, even the thought: “Oh look! A sense of openness!” So venture again into surrendering that thought, and the next, and the next. This need not require effort—the surrendering we’re contemplating here doesn’t take any energy or even intention. Intention, after all, is also a form of thinking. Just drop your interest in the contents of your thought-stream.
It’s an amazing experiment, worth exploring on your own in any situation. You might be concerned that by surrendering your thinking mind like this you would become stupid, or not understand what’s happening, or be unprepared for what is being asked of you. But as you become familiar with this thought-surrendering dynamic you will find that your understanding is more acute, not less. Understanding is instantaneous; it’s not about the conclusion-making of the thought-stream.
As you become fluent with this practice, you may discover that in addition to experiencing a sense of openness, spaciousness and silence, when you release your interest in the thought, you may also experience a kind of relief, even a sense of joy. This joy doesn’t have to do with anything—it has no cause. It is the joy intrinsic to clear, open awareness. “Figuring things out” is left behind. For a moment, or longer, you find yourself in a space of unknowing which is clear, open presence. As the Dalai Lama famously said, “I sit at the table of unknowing and invite you to join me here.”
Once you become familiar with surrendering less “important” thoughts, you can explore surrendering ones you have more investment in, that you believe in. For example, say you are at a party and you are participating in a conversation with a group of people. You say something that someone else responds to critically or jokingly. You notice a sinking feeling in your stomach and the stream of thoughts that start proliferating in your mind: I knew that person doesn’t like me; she’s so bitchy; now the others will join in the attack on me; I’m such an idiot, why did I say anything? I hate this party; and so on. As soon as you notice these kinds of thoughts showing up, surrender them. Abandon your interest in them. Nothing else needs to happen. In the openness of unknowing you are completely safe and innocent. You have no need to defend yourself or judge anyone. You are the clear presence that you are. Just that.
Instead of conditioning the next moment with troubled thoughts, you surrender your belief in them; now the next moment is open, untroubled, and free. You have no need to judge the world around you; you allow it to be what it is. If the situation calls for a response from you, fine, you respond, not from defensiveness or judgment, but from the natural ease of your presence. In the quiet mystery of surrendering your thoughts, you have released any fixity of belief or position-taking, and you are welcomed by openness, quiet, and a most subtle joy—a lightness of being. In surrendering something of no real value, you have gained the world.