69 - The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying
71 - Buddha's Teachings 9: The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes - Part 3

“Intrusive” thoughts and emotions arise repeatedly with enough intensity for them to be disturbing or distracting, even though they aren’t objectively relevant or helpful as they’re arising. In this episode I describe how to use Buddhist practice to reduce the intrusiveness of irrelevant or unhelpful thoughts and emotions by decreasing our identification with the content of our experience and increasing our identification with our natural, spacious awareness.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Intrusive Thoughts and Emotions Defined
Reducing the Intrusiveness of Thoughts and Emotions
Mindfulness of the Body
Meditation: Sitting Through the Intrusion
Mindfulness of Feelings and Mind States
Discerning How the Suffering Arises
Summary

Intrusive Thoughts and Emotions Defined

“Intrusive” thoughts and emotions are experiences that repeatedly arise for you with enough intensity for them to be disturbing or distracting. Such experiences aren’t actually limited to thoughts and emotions – sensations and basic reactions of aversion or attraction can also be intrusive. For the most part, though, I’ll just say “thoughts and emotions” to cover the gamut of our internal experiences, both positive and negative, including fears, worries, anxieties, obsessions, infatuations, resentments, preoccupations, fantasies, catastrophizing, and hypersensitivity.

Characteristic of intrusive thoughts and emotions is that they commandeer our attention but aren’t objectively relevant or helpful as they’re arising. In other words, part of us wishes we could just put them aside, and we usually try to do that, but then they come back. For example, lets say you’re paranoid that people at work don’t like or respect you, and worry they’re talking behind your back or avoiding you. At one level, you know this is unlikely, and you’ve recognized this kind of social paranoia as a problem for you. You know from experience that giving in to your anxiety isn’t going to help even if there’s a grain of truth in your concerns. But still the thoughts and emotions keep arising.

Sometimes intrusive thoughts and emotions are extremely disconnected from reality. In general, this is easier to observe in other people than it is in ourselves: We can often clearly see when a friend or relative is obsessing over a scenario they’ve more or less completely fabricated in their own minds. For example, who hasn’t witnessed someone passionately preoccupied with another person, imagining something sexual or romantic is about to happen between the two of them, when in reality the object of their affections has no idea or interest? All that wasted time and energy spent fantasizing and anticipating!

At other times, of course, real events in our lives are either distressing or exciting, and we can’t stop thinking about them. A certain amount of this is natural and no amount of Buddhist practice is going to prevent it. Still, even real situations only bear so much pondering before we’re wasting our time thinking about them, and in addition the associated thoughts and emotions may be troubling, exhausting, or at least distracting. An example of this is facing financial difficulties in your life; while you certainly need to plan and make decisions about how to best take care of your situation, you really don’t need to be overcome with anxious financial worries while standing in line at the grocery store, or in the middle of your meditation. Another example is repeatedly experiencing fear (or excitement) about something that may or may not happen in the future. Despite advice from others that “it’s not worth worrying about,” you can’t seem to stop.

Being subject to intrusive thoughts and emotions can be differentiated from useful thinking and processing by looking at the results. Does the time spent thinking, or dwelling on a particular sensation, feeling, or emotion, lead to greater clarity or peace of mind? Does it help you make good decisions? Does it feel like a necessary part of processing a recent traumatic event or difficult realization? Or, alternatively, do you find yourself perseverating – that is, thinking the same thoughts over and over? Is your experience of the thoughts and emotions causing stress, insomnia, depression, or health problems? Is it interfering with the life you want to lead?

Disclaimer: In this episode I’m talking about how to use Buddhist practice to address intrusive thoughts and emotions. Anyone can do these practices. However, if you have intrusive experiences that are intense and repeated enough to interfere with your health and normal daily life, please also avail yourself of mental health treatment. Therapy and medication can take edge off extremely intrusive mental and emotional experiences and let you function and engage in Buddhist practice. In fact, many people find that therapy and/or medication gives them a healthy base to work from but doesn’t resolve their issues entirely, and the addition of practice to the mix lets them address things to a deeper level of satisfaction.

Reducing the Intrusiveness of Thoughts and Emotions

How do we use Buddhist practice to gain some measure of freedom from intrusive thoughts and emotions? (There are many different ways to approach this issue using Buddhist practice, so what I present is my own formulation based on traditional teachings.)

Basically, we reduce the intrusiveness of irrelevant or unhelpful thoughts and emotions by decreasing our identification with the content of our experience and increasing our identification with our natural, spacious awareness. [I’ll repeat that…] In other words, we challenge our habitual conviction that our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and feelings are all-important – that they necessarily reflect reality, need to be acted on, or even that they should be pleasant versus unpleasant, or calm versus agitating.

We’re usually focused intently on our internally experienced content – even when, in theory, we’re paying attention to what’s happening around us. Buddhism encourages us to explore and become intimately familiar with another aspect of our human experience: Our ground of awareness, which can be described – metaphorically – as the space through which the content of experience moves. Our awareness doesn’t have anything to do with thinking, emotion, aversion or attraction, or even sensation. After all, we can be aware of all of those phenomena. We can also be aware of the heat of the room, or a sound, or our excitement about something, without thinking about any of these things, or necessarily experiencing any particular feeling or emotion. Within our ground of awareness, thoughts and emotions arise, morph and change, pulsate with intensity, and inevitably pass away.

It’s true that intrusive thoughts and emotions pass away but then come back (over and over), but our ground of awareness isn’t bothered by this. Actually, let me describe this “ground of awareness” in slightly different terms, lest I give the impression that we’re aiming for some thoughtless state of mind through an act of will. Our awareness isn’t a state of mind. I prefer to think of it as being alive, or aliveness. After all, part of being alive is being aware – even a plant, in some sense, is aware of the movement of the sun. No matter what’s going on, as long as we’re alive, we’re alive… and what’s remarkable about the Buddha’s teaching is that he found out how we could take refuge in that basic reality. By shifting our attention from whatever is troubling or distracting us to simply being alive or aware, we’re able to rest in a reality unaffected by what’s going on, or even by what we’re thinking and feeling. That reality – basic aliveness – doesn’t shut out or deny the content of experience in any way, it just exists in a deeper way, like the still bottom of the ocean under the churning waves.

Mindfulness of the Body

We start shifting our attention from the content of our experience to spacious aliveness through the practice of mindfulness. At first, this is a body-based practice – becoming aware of your breathing, or physical posture, or the sensations of your hands, for example. When an intrusive thought or emotion arises, you don’t argue with it or fight it, you just practice mindfulness of the body. There’s nothing magical about paying attention to the body per se, but there is something powerfully effective about shifting your attention – and concern – from the intrusive content of your mind to awareness instead. You don’t have to consciously think about this, but by turning toward the spacious ground of awareness you’re gently inviting yourself to rest, for a moment, in the unconditional reality of basic aliveness.

Now, many people exposed to modern-day mindfulness think the practice more or less ends there: that when intrusive internal experiences arise, you shift your attention to the breath to break free of the intrusion, and eventually the thoughts and emotions will intrude less and less. If this works for you, great! But mindfulness of the body is only the first step in this practice in Buddhism and it’s likely to have limited effectiveness, especially if it’s employed in order to get rid of thoughts and emotions you don’t want experience. It’s important not to get adversarial with your own mind and body; the mind that’s repeatedly generating the intrusive content is you just much as the sense of Executive-I who wants to be free of it. You’re an even match for yourself, and much of what’s happening is subconscious or even unconscious; a direct effort to wrestle intrusive thoughts and emotions into submission rarely works.

According to traditional Buddhism, you need to practice further if you’re going to gain more freedom from intrusive thoughts and emotions. You keep doing the momentary body mindfulness, but you also need to employ other teachings and tools to work on what I outlined earlier: decreasing our identification with the content of our experience and increasing our identification with our natural, spacious awareness. According to the formulation I’m offering to today, there are three ways we do this in addition to mindfulness of the body: seated meditation, expanding our mindfulness practice, and wrestling with the Buddhist teachings.

Meditation: Sitting Through the Intrusion

How does meditation help reduce the intrusiveness of irrelevant, unhelpful thoughts and emotions? Meditation is beneficial in many different ways, but what’s most important to discuss in this context is how silent, seated meditation requires us to sit through various internal experiences – intrusive and non-intrusive – from beginning to end. Most people, when they aim to meditate, assume thinking is mistake and consider the time spent thinking “not meditating.” However, at a certain level awareness continues throughout. Or, more accurately, aliveness continues throughout. So, in the course of meditation, over and over, we aim ourselves toward the reality of that continued aliveness which has nothing to do with the content of our experience. The thoughts and emotions, no matter how compelling or distressing, come and go.

An example may help illustrate what I’m talking about here: Let’s say you’re meditating and a recurring intrusive narrative arises in your mind about a wrong someone has done you. The emotion of anger arises as well, along with tension in your chest and gut. Like you’ve done dozens of times already, you rehearse the passionate dressing-down you’re going to give the person you’re upset with. At the moment, this narrative dominates your reality and you can’t wait to get up from meditation and deal with it. But you keep sitting. A few minutes later, the tune from an old commercial is running through your head. And a few minutes after that, for a moment, you experience a spacious stillness as you watch the dust motes floating in a beam of sunlight.

Literally sitting through intrusive internal experiences – as unpleasant or pointless as it may seem at the time – reprograms your body and mind in a much deeper way than any conscious efforts or arguments you could make. Frankly, with enough meditation (and I’m not even talking about deep or profound meditation here!) it’s difficult to take yourself so seriously. If, to keep using the last example, your anger was as big a deal as part of you thinks it is, how could you more or less forget about it a few minutes later? With respect to intrusive thoughts and emotions, meditation is powerful and nonverbal way to decrease your identification with the content of your experience. Hopefully, it will also strengthen your identification with your natural awareness or aliveness, which doesn’t come or go but is revealed at certain moments when you’re not so focused on your internally experienced content – moments when the dust motes dancing in a sunbeam are every bit as interesting as your thoughts and emotions.

Mindfulness of Feelings and Mind States

To further free ourselves from intrusive thoughts and emotions, we expand our mindfulness practice. The body is one of the most straightforward, least thought-provoking things we can be aware of, so it’s good for shifting our attention away from the content of our minds. However, there are a number of other critical things to cultivate mindfulness of, according to the Buddha’s original teachings.[i] These include mindfulness of feelings, mind states, and your direct experience of the foundational Buddhist teachings.[ii]

“Feelings,” in the Buddhist sense, are your basic experience of pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain when you encounter something. In other words, we pretty much automatically categorize everything we experience in terms of whether we like it (and therefore wouldn’t mind more of it), don’t like it (and therefore would prefer it to go away), or feel indifferent about it. So, mindfulness of feelings means cultivating awareness of your reactions to things at the most basic level – positive, negative, or neutral. Note: mindfulness of feelings does not mean judging or analyzing them, but being honest with yourself about your feelings and learning to notice them when they arise.

As you cultivate mindfulness of “mind states,” you become better able to recognize and be aware of when your mind is with or without grasping, with or without aversion, and with or without delusion. In addition, you notice whether or not your mind is – to use traditional Buddhist words – constricted, scattered, enlarged, limited, concentrated, and released. These terms aren’t just a random list of the many possible mind states of a human being; they refer to specific kinds of mind states experienced along the Buddhist path of practice. Rather than spend a lot of time defining these states, however, let me put all of this in terms of intrusive thoughts and emotions and just use your own experience to guess what the Buddhist mind state terms are referring to.

Mindfulness of mind states means becoming able to discern what’s going on in your mind before, during, and after the intrusive experiences (as well as at other times, of course). Chances are good that intrusive thoughts and emotions arise when your mind is scattered. Once they arise, your mind probably becomes constricted. When you meditate for a while or practice body mindfulness, your mind may feel somewhat enlarged. That’s the point at which the intrusive thought or emotion may recede. The point is to become more and more familiar with your internal experience, particularly in terms of whether your mind feels liberated and free, or caught, constricted, and subject to intrusive thoughts and emotions.

Discerning How the Suffering Arises

Once we have a finer-grained sense of what’s going on for us when intrusive thoughts and emotions arise, it’s time to wrestle with what the Buddhist teachings tell us about our situation. This is the third point on my list of additional practices, but also the fourth kind of mindfulness taught by the Buddha. To learn more about what I mean by “wrestling with the Buddhist teachings” see Episode 68, but to summarize: We explore the Buddhist teachings through our own, direct, personal experience, questioning and verifying them for ourselves. We let the teachings guide our inquiry and challenge us, but also honor the validity of our experience. The transformative truth of Buddhism can only be found at the dynamic intersection between the teachings and our actual lives.

Now, I don’t have time to exhaustively explore all the ways you might apply Buddhist teachings and practices to intrusive thoughts and emotions in one episode, or even in a book! However, I’ll give a few examples of teachings you might wrestle with, and hopefully you’ll get a sense of what this stage of practicing with intrusive thoughts and emotions can look like.

In a nutshell, the Buddhist teachings say that we create our own suffering – or, at least, the largely mental and emotional kind we’re talking about today. We engage in grasping, aversion, and delusion because we think that’s the way to protect ourselves. Such action just leads to dukkha, but in our ignorance, we do it anyway. But this isn’t about self-blame, because you can’t find anything to label and blame as self. Instead, Buddhism’s whole point is – if in some sense “you” are behind it, “you” can do something about it. If you cultivate mindfulness of the whole tangled web of causation behind your intrusive internal experiences, you may be able to discern where you might start untangling the web and disconnecting some of the strands.

One approach is to consider the fact that something is causing certain thoughts, emotions, sensations, and feelings to arise repeatedly and intensely for you, out of proportion to their relevance or helpfulness at a given moment. Usually, when we start to explore this something, we look outwards. For example: “I keep thinking about whether I’m going to get laid off at work because I might get laid off at work.” Okay, at certain level this might be true. But why does that thought come with a terrified, sinking feeling, and why does it occur every five minutes even though there’s a good chance you won’t get laid off at all?

When I’m exploring this kind of thing personally, I find it helpful to ask myself, “What’s here that I can let go of?” Obviously, you can’t “let go” of the simple fact there are layoffs going on at work, or the fact you need money. So, what? What else is contributing to the intensity and intrusiveness of your worry? What’s making you dwell on what might happen even though you know it’s not helpful and it’s making you feel sick? Is it your identification with your job (“you are what you do”)? Is it your fear that life would be unbearable without the level of material comfort and security you have now? You might be able to find something – some delusion, grasping, or aversion – you’re able to let go of, and thereby decrease the intrusiveness of your thoughts and emotions.

Another, related, approach is to carefully observe the relationship between 1) the degree to which you indulge in perseverating on your intrusive thoughts or emotions, and 2) your level of misery or agitation. Part of you is eager to dwell on the thought or emotion as if it’s going help get you want you want or avert disaster. If you practice mindfulness, you can notice how awful you feel when perseverating, how it never goes anywhere or results in anything helpful, and how nice it is when the intrusive thought or emotion fades. You can observe for yourself how everything pretty much works out for the best even when you don’t indulge the repetitive thoughts – or it works out even better! Each time you manage to remain fairly mindful throughout the whole unfolding of this process, the less likely you’re going to entirely believe a particular intrusive thought or emotion deserves to be as intrusive as it is.

Summary

The ways to apply the Buddhist teachings to intrusive thoughts and emotions are practically infinite, so I’ll stop there, at least for now. To review the basics: Our goal is to become less identified with content of our conscious experience, including our intrusive thoughts and emotions, and more identified with the space through which that content moves. That space is our basic awareness or aliveness, which doesn’t come or go and isn’t subject to changing thoughts or emotions or conditions. We get more familiar with our basic aliveness through mindfulness practice and meditation. We challenge our identification with the content of our conscious experience by expanding our mindfulness practice to mindfulness of feelings, mind states, and our direct experience of the Buddhist teachings – particularly those on the causes of suffering and its cessation.

 


Endnotes

[i] “Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference” (MN 10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html .

[ii] In the Buddha’s teachings, the fourth foundation of mindfulness is called “mental qualities,” a vague term which might suggest more mindfulness of mind states. However, the four foundations of mindfulness sutta goes on to define particular mental qualities directly related to foundational Buddhist teachings including the five hindrances, the five skandhas, and the four noble truths, so I take this to mean the Buddha’s advocating exploration of one’s personal direct experience of the core Buddhist teachings.

Photo Credit

By Familiengrab_des_Otto_Schurig_-_Mutter_Erde_fec.jpg: Mutter ErdeFugue.JPG: Wassily Kandinskyderivative work: Neotex555 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. This image is a derivative work of the following images: Familiengrab des Otto Schurig 1874-1920, Spitzenfabrikant in Plauen (sculpture) and Fugue by Wassily Kandinsky (painting).

 

69 - The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying
71 - Buddha's Teachings 9: The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes - Part 3
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