There’s this advice I see popping up on the internet along the lines of “think positive thoughts” but also “don’t think negative thoughts.”
I think this really oversimplifies our reality. While we may have some ability to change our thoughts, or stop thinking certain thoughts, that’s a pretty advanced situation. Our thoughts are the results of years of conditioning, memories both conscious and subconscious, collective and individual.
People who spend their days in society, doing things other than meditating all day, are not likely to be in a position to “stop thinking negative thoughts.”
I think it’s better to reframe this idea.
Marcus Aurelius uses the word “corralling” and I think this is a great way to think about our thoughts. Imagine a wild horse comes to your door. You can:
A) Jump on her and let her gallop you to god knows where.
Or you can
B) Put a harness on her and put her in the corral. She’s still there. You didn’t kill her. She doesn’t cease to exist. But now she’s manageable. You can walk away from her. You don’t need to let the wild horse (the unskillful thought) take up all your attention.
So rather than try to stop thinking certain thoughts, let’s focus on learning to recognize the unskillful thought when it’s headed our way. As we cultivate awareness and mindfulness, we become better at recognizing our thought patterns. And, we find there is a space between the arising thought and our reaction to it.
So if you’ve been jumping on those horses and letting them drag you into fear, anger, anxiety — know this: a you don’t have to get on the horse. You have a choice. And there’s no better way to illuminate this choice for yourself than to cultivate a mindfulness practice.