Each thought is an overpowering thought — or so it appears. It’s important to notice and counteract this rather odd fact about our lives.
As usual, it’s often easier to notice this in others than in ourselves. Yesterday, I was paying my bill at an automobile shop where I had just had my boat trailer inspected. The phone rang and the fellow who was attending to my bill answered it. I stood there waiting while he wrote down some notes about his telephone conversation. When the conversation ended, he finished processing my bill. I paid it and left.
He was busy attending to me when the phone call came in, yet the phone call took precedence. It wasn’t as if it was a call from his boss or an emergency call; it was an ordinary call about servicing someone’s automobile. You’ve undoubtedly had experiences like that yourself.
I didn’t take it personally. I understood exactly why it happened as it did.
Each thought that appears seems important, which is all I mean by claiming that each thought is an overpowering thought. Even if there are some exceptions, almost every thought is an overpowering thought.
Pay attention to me! I’m important! I have precedence!
Isn’t that odd? Why should it be like that?
The mind has four focus points: the past, the future, elsewhere, or the present moment. Since the mind craves novelty and is easily bored, it’s typically uninterested in the present moment. So, usually, thoughts are about the past (memories), the future (imaginings), or elsewhere (dream land).
When a new thought appears, the mind is instantly attracted by its novelty. It is natural to assume, “Oh, I must pay attention to this and let go of whatever I’m now thinking about.” If I am talking with someone and the phone rings, I pick up the phone. If the doorbell rings when I am on the phone, I rush to the door. It’s crazy!
Why live in bondage to every seemingly overpowering thought that comes along?
Occasionally, in emergency situations, some thoughts are important and require immediate responses. What percentage of thoughts, though, fall into that category? Surely less than 10%. The odds of one being what should be a genuinely overpowering thought are very small. Why be a slave all the rest of the time? Why be that out of control?
Here’s the good news: if you decide to do what it takes not to react automatically to every random thought as it appears, it’s possible. It’s not only possible, but it’s simple!
All it takes is practice. It’s just a matter of breaking a bad habit.
Once you accept that nearly all thoughts are peripheral to what is genuinely important, it’s intellectually easy to distance yourself from them. Once you realize that you are not your thoughts, you also realize that you no longer have to react to each one as if it were an overpowering thought. If it is, fine: respond appropriately. If it isn’t, let it go.
Since most thoughts are not at all important, it simply becomes a practical matter of distancing yourself from them, of letting them go, of not becoming entangled with them.
This is one way to describe the practice of meditation. The key to meditation is to notice when a thought comes and, assuming it is not really an overpowering thought, returning immediately to focusing on your breathing or whatever the object of your meditation practice happens to be.
Let me emphasize the emotional benefit of doing this. Very often, thoughts appear with related emotions. If we happen to like the emotion, we may relish it; if we happen not to like the emotion, we may seek to avoid it or get rid of it. Either way, we are reacting emotionally.
Please don’t confuse reacting with responding. To react to an overpowering thought or emotion is simply to be in thrall to it. Being a slave is much worse than being free. Being reactive is lacking control; being free is enjoying control.
It’s true that, for some people, it can be relaxing occasionally to give up control by, for example, having a massage, being sexually submissive, or going on a spiritual retreat where all your behavior is controlled by others. However, it is stressful to be out of control frequently or normally.
It’s not just a matter of riding the emotional roller coaster up and down; it’s a matter of never controlling whether you are going up or down. At least on a physical roller coaster you can look ahead and see what’s coming. Constantly to react to what are taken to be one overpowering thought or emotion after another is the essence of living a distracted life. Yes, some distraction occasionally is relaxing, but constant distraction is extremely stressful. In fact, it’s effective torture.
This explains a lot, doesn’t it?
It’s likely that, without realizing it, you have been torturing yourself. Subjecting yourself to the whims of the mind is torture.
It’s wholly unnecessary. The reality is that there’s no such thing as an overpowering thought; instead, there are thoughts that you decide are overpowering. You are never required to decide that any thought is an overpowering one.
This does not mean that, for sages (successful philosophers, those who live well, those who are wise), thoughts never arise (and, so, automatically, overpowering ones never arise). As long as our brains are healthy, thoughts will never stop arising. What it means is that, for sages, thoughts have lost the appearance of being overpowering.
So, for sages, thoughts continue to arise but without urgency. They seem peripheral and unimportant. Sages are free to attend to them or not. Such freedom is peaceful, calm, tranquil, pleasant. It is quite different from the self-torture the mind causes the rest of us to endure in our daily lives.
It is fine to be skeptical about this. What, though, if it is correct? Would you rather spend the rest of your life enjoying whatever unfolds or torturing yourself? If you’d rather not torture yourself, why not decide to find out for yourself whether or not it is correct?
After all, you should never believe what I say about anything! Instead, if it makes sense to you and seems worth the effort of investigating for yourself, determine for yourself whether or not it’s correct. That’s the right way to approach reading these posts – or anything else.
You surely will grant immediately, though, that each thought – or nearly each thought – that arises presents itself as an overpowering thought. Since that’s true, reflect on its implications. Might it be that you are, without realizing it, torturing yourself by failing to discipline your reaction to whatever thoughts (and accompanying emotions) the mind presents?
If so, and if releasing yourself from that bondage is sufficiently important, begin today to meditate. Unless you improve your habits, your results won’t improve.
Living a more meditative life really is a much better way to enjoy life.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended posts: Many posts in the Spiritual Well-Being category of this blog are relevant. For a quick technique for distancing you can begin to use immediately, see Stress Relief Quickly.
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Eckhart Tolle’s CD training sets.