Many years ago, when I was new to meditation, I asked an Indian swami how to handle the swarm of negative thoughts that crowded my mind. The swami’s answer, delivered with an eye roll and a knowing giggle, discouraged me profoundly. “In the end,” he said, “there’s nothing to do but sit quietly and watch your mind.”
In one sense, of course, he was right. But I couldn’t take his advice. In those days, my mind was so unruly that all I could do was cling to a mantra and pray for relief. In fact, I don’t know what I would have done to get some space inside my mind if my guru, Swami Muktananda, had not given a lecture one day on the true nature of thought.
The teaching came from the Shaiva Tantras, a group of sophisticated and relatively modern yogic texts that appeared in Northern India around the ninth century and remained relatively secret until about 50 years ago. The concept is simple: Everything that appears in your mind is made of consciousness, or, if you like, mind energy. Your thoughts and feelings – the difficult, negative, passionate ones as well as the peaceful and clever ones -are all made of the same subtle, invisible, highly dynamic “stuff.” Mind energy is so evanescent that it can dissolve in a moment, yet so powerful that it can create an inner reality that runs you for a lifetime. The secret revealed by the Tantric sages is that if you can recognize thoughts for what they are – if you can see that they are nothing but mind energy – they will stop troubling you.
Now on one level, this conclusion is obvious. Yet the fact is that most of us never pay attention to the substance of our thoughts. We are much too caught up in their content, which we implicitly believe is important and real. In fact, thought content is simply the passing form that thought energy happens to be taking at any given moment. There’s an energetic dance going on inside everyone’s mind, but rather than seeing the dance itself, we get caught up in its story line.
The Tantras invite us instead to turn our gaze around and investigate the energetic material inside a thought. To do this, we need to take our attention away from the content of the thought, to stop following where it leads, and instead look into the energy that the thought is made of, the actual substance of the thought itself.
You might want to try this now. Close your eyes and observe the thoughts going through your mind. Thoughts get shy when you stare at them, so your stream of consciousness might suddenly come to a halt at this point. If that happens, you will need to create a thought. For now, let it be a sweet thought: a beach, say, or the name of someone you like.
Hold the thought for a few seconds. Now, focus on the thought’s substance. Notice the energetic space the thought creates inside your mind. If you like, you can formally label the thought “energy” or “thought stuff” – just the way if you were practicing mindfulness meditation, you might label it “thinking.”
The next step in this process is to investigate the underlying energy, the feeling space created by the thought. Every single thought or particle of thought has its own energetic signature; the energy in thoughts is what gives them their power. The meaning of words in our mind is what engages us, but what causes thoughts to change our inner state is actually the energy inside those thoughts.
Some thoughts are relatively neutral; others are actually helpful. Any meditator knows that if you keep saying “peace” to yourself, you’ll eventually experience a loosening of your inner tension, a settling into yourself. Other thoughts, however, carry intense agitation – which may feel exciting or painful or depressing, depending on whether the thoughts trigger desire or anger or grief.
Neutral thoughts are easy to deal with in meditation. They are the ones that respond best to the classic directive to let thoughts go or allow them to float by. The charged thoughts, however, are stickier. They are the ones that obstruct us. Certain thoughts are so intensely charged that in some cases, they take us right out of meditation. In every meditation class I’ve taught, somebody will confess to avoiding the practice because of the charged thoughts that come up when she or he sits.
The Vast Sea of Awareness
Ironically, the very intensity of these charged thoughts is what gives them the potential to expand our awareness. When we can enter the energy of fear or anger or desire, free it from its freight of content and association, that energy will actually carry us deeper inside. It’s like the hydroelectric power of a rushing stream, which will knock us down if we try to fight it but which, when harnessed, can light up our neighborhood.
Try this: Close your eyes and bring up a thought that creates anger or irritation in you. Now, let go of the object of your irritation and tune in to the pure feeling of it. Then tune in to the energetic sensations within that feeling. You are moving your attention into the feeling space created by your irritation, letting yourself explore the energy inside it. Notice where you feel it in your body or mind. Where is it strongest? Go into the strongest sensation of feeling you can find and “name” it – recognize it as – pure energy. This is not “good energy” or “bad energy”; it’s simply energy, a particularly subtle and intense form of conscious, creative energy.
Now, become aware of the whole space of your inner awareness, the space within which thoughts and feelings are contained. See if you can recognize how the energy in your irritable thought is being held inside the wider energy space that is your inner experience. You might want to imagine the energy visually, as a whirlpool or a wave inside the energy sea of your awareness. Think of your wider mind as the sea itself–vast and spacious, surrounding and containing the intense thought energy. Let the irritation energy be as it is, but keep part of your attention inside the wider energy sea of your mind. As you do, notice what happens to the condensed, impacted energy of your irritability. Notice how its edges tend to dissolve into the wider space of your mind.
As you become more experienced at recognizing your thoughts as consciousness or energy, you’ll discover how effectively this practice can disarm obstructive thoughts and feelings. Over time, it will subtly shift your relationship to every one of these mental tendencies. Instead of seeing each flare of anger, resistance, or grief as a monstrous block that stops you dead or hurls you off your cushion, you’ll start being able to identify the qualities of the feeling: “Oh, here’s fear. Look, it has a sharp, prickly energy. That’s how fear energy feels. Here’s that swampy hollowness in the heart. That’s the way grief feels.”
If you then take the process one step further by recognizing the pure energy at the core of the feeling and holding it inside your wider space of awareness, you will see it transform itself. You’ll understand ever more deeply how the energy of mind creates reality. Moreover, as you practice this sequence regularly in meditation, it will come to your aid in the rest of your life as well. When strong feelings threaten to blow you away, you can sit for a moment or two, recognize the energy inside them, and then hold that energy inside your awareness until it eventually dissolves.
This is a liberating practice. The Tantric texts describe the mind as being like a goddess; like any goddess, she is powerful, and her power can bless you or hold you back. Yet goddesses can be won over, and they especially like to be seen, to be known, to be respectfully recognized for who they are. We know the scenario from countless myths and fairy tales: When a hero approaches a powerful being respectfully yet without fear, that being gives him whatever he asks. Our mind is actually waiting for us to remember this secret. She is waiting for us to see her as she is: a glorious, creative energy who can create in a moment any reality that can be conceived.
Approaching the mind with this awareness, we free it to expand. Then the mind that had previously seemed so dense and obstreperous begins to show us its real vastness, its brilliance, and its love. A mind that recognizes its own true substance becomes a giver of blessings–no longer a problem but a friend.