Sitting, meditating on the breath, or the body, or another object, one gets a chance to become intimate with the mind. Sometimes, all is well, and there is peace, and moments of total ease with the present moment. More often, though, the mind is playing one of its favorite numbers, either wandering, or perseverating with troubling thoughts. The latter is the most difficult to deal with, and requires another medicine besides meditation.
Adapted from the root teaching on The Removal of Distracting Thoughts, are some clear instructions:
We are to reflect on the distracting thoughts. This is a different activity than meditation, and one that complements it. This reflection follows a five step process.
When unskillful thoughts arise, one should, in order to get rid of them, reflect on a different object which is connected with skillful thoughts. For example, if one is overcome with thoughts of self-loathing, one can try to practice loving kindness, wishing oneself well.
2) Reflection on cause and effect
If the unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should ponder on the disadvantages of unskillful thoughts. What effect do these thoughts have on me? How much misery is created as a result? How does it feel in the body, and in the mind?
If the unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should endeavor to turn one's attention and reflection away from those thoughts.
4) Investigation of the source
If unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should reflect on the removal of the (thought) source of those unskillful thoughts.
5) Forceful removal
If unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should restrain, subdue and beat down the negative mind with the good mind.
Closer to us, contemporary Vipassana teachers are dispensing similar teachings.
From U Tejaniya, in Awareness Alone is Not Enough, a teaching about difficult emotions that can also be applied to unskillful thoughts:
When trying to deal with an emotion you can ask yourself four questions.
1) First question: “When I am having this emotion, does it make my body and mind feel good or bad?” Does it feel pleasant or unpleasant? If you recognize the emotion every time it arises, and also recognize whether it feels pleasant or unpleasant in body and mind, the mind will start wondering whether it is worth having this emotion. Eventually your mind will realize that it does not have to live with this emotion. Once you know that something does not feel good, are you just going to keep indulging in it?2) Second question: “What is the emotion about, what is it directed towards?”
3) Third question: “Why am I having this emotion?”
4) Fourth question: “Is having this emotion necessary or unnecessary?”
These questions support the practice because they create interest and encourage us to use our intelligence. The moment we get a real answer, when the mind really sees something, it lets go.
From Ayya Khema, in When the Iron Eagle Flies:
"What you could do at such time would be contemplation. Sit down where nobody will disturb you, and focus on the pain to find out its cause, why it should have arisen. Do not be satisfied with an answer such as "Because so-and-so said something"- that's only the superficial cause of it. That would have been the trigger, but there's no cause for mental pain unless there's something inside oneself that is reacting to that trigger. It is useful first to find the outer trigger, which is probably well known to you. It could be a sense of futility, anxiety about the future - any kind of trigger is possible."
"Then you need to find in yourself the reason for the reaction creating pain. The reason has to be "I don't want it the way it is." There can be no other."
But why don't we like it the way it is? Usually the answer is "Because my ego is not supported." The bottom line of the whole inquiry is always the "ego", but it's useless to say, "I know it is my ego" and then continue to have the pain. It is useful , however, to go through the whole process of the trigger, the personal reaction, the inquiry into the cause of the reaction and then the understanding that the reaction is our dukkha and not the trigger. I have a formula: "Don't blame the trigger." Never let the mind stay with the trigger; always investigate what and who is reacting. Unless we find the reaction to the trigger in ourselves, we are going to repeat the same performance with the same result over and over again, like a preprogrammed computer printout. Press the same buttons and the same printout appears, until we finally realize that it is nothing but a button being pressed, and that we don't have to have the same printout. We are in a position to be able to stop ourselves.
In the beginning that may be painful because we have to look at ourselves in a new way. We need no have this exaggerated idea of our own worth, nor do we need an exaggerated idea of our nonworth. We can learn just to accept the way things are. Sitting on the pillow at such a time is very good, but trying to meditate is often useless; contemplate instead. The subject of the contemplation is to be: "The cause of mental pain."
Some [feelings] are pleasant, some are unpleasant, some are neutral, but our reactions don't have to be preplanned, impulsive, instinctive. We can look at them with mindfulness and put the brakes on. Substitution is much easier than just dropping what is in the mind. Although dropping is the perfect way to get rid of clinging, it is more difficult because it is a letting-go aspect. In the beginning, substitution is a necessary response . . . When aversion, rejection, resistance, anger, jealousy, pride, greed, or craving arise within, we can take a moment to look at them mindfully. When we recognize their burdensome impact on us, we understand that we need not continue to let them exist. We can substitute compassion, or the idea that they are not important, or the understanding of impermanence, or corelessness. This is particularly true of anger, which makes life so very unpleasant for oneself and others. When we get angry with a person, we can ask ourselves first of all, "What am I getting angry at? Is it the hair, the nose, the eyes, or what? Am I getting angry at his words? If it is really unpleasant speech, it means the other person is unhappy. "Why should I get angry, then? Why can't I be compassionate?" If we can change our anger to compassion, we will feel good, the other person will feel good, and we will have taken a step forward on our spiritual path.
From Gil Fronsdal:
By sorting through the unwholesome and the wholesome, we can choose to cultivate the wholesome and let go of the unwholesome. If you feel an inclination to be generous, for example, you can choose to water the seed of generosity by following through on that inclination. You may be able to distinguish mean-spirited feelings and choose to let them go. With enough mindfulness and investigation, you can even choose which thoughts to pursue and which to drop. You may be able to recognize when you are thinking along unwholesome lines and choose to think about something more useful.
From Bikkhu Boddhi, in The Noble Eightfold Path, the Way to the End of Suffering:
Since greed and aversion are deeply grounded, they do not yield easily; however, the work of overcoming them is not impossible if an effective strategy is employed. The path devised by the Buddha makes use of an indirect approach: it proceeds by tackling the thoughts to which these defilements give rise. Greed and aversion surface in the form of thoughts, and thus can be eroded by a process of "thought substitution," by replacing them with the thoughts opposed to them. The intention of renunciation provides the remedy to greed. Greed comes to manifestation in thoughts of desire — as sensual, acquisitive, and possessive thoughts. Thoughts of renunciation spring from the wholesome root of non-greed, which they activate whenever they are cultivated. Since contrary thoughts cannot coexist, when thoughts of renunciation are roused, they dislodge thoughts of desire, thus causing non-greed to replace greed. Similarly, the intentions of good will and harmlessness offer the antidote to aversion. Aversion comes to manifestation either in thoughts of ill will — as angry, hostile, or resentful thoughts; or in thoughts of harming — as the impulses to cruelty, aggression, and destruction. Thoughts of good will counter the former outflow of aversion, thoughts of harmlessness the latter outflow, in this way excising the unwholesome root of aversion itself.
Last, borrowing from the Vipassana tradition, and adapted for the Western psychology culture, are cognitive approaches to dysfunctional thoughts, that are now commonly used to treat depression. Cognitive therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) recognize the importance of becoming aware of negative thought patterns and approaching them in a way that loosens their grip, eventually leading to more skillful mind habits.