Making room for the extraordinary:

Stop trying to control your thoughts

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There are times in our life when it can feel almost impossible to find some peace from the noise and torment of our thoughts.

I can remember a particularly challenging period when I was living at Prinknash Abbey and felt completely unable to control the thoughts that were tormenting me.

I discussed this with the Novice Master, who gave me some advice and asked me to read a book which had made a deep impression on him.

The advice came as a complete surprise: “Stop trying to control your thoughts.”

The book was a collection of wonderfully practical talks by Shunryu Suzuki[1], and the Novice Master ended our meeting by reading a few lines from it:

“To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the best way to control him…let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy.

To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy.

The second worst is trying to control them.

The best way is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”

Thoughts will arise quite naturally, as naturally as clouds in the sky. There is very little we can do about that.

The challenges we face flow from how we react to our thoughts, and we can do a considerable amount about this. There is much that can be done to establish a more peaceful relationship with our thoughts.

St. Hesychios, a famous monk of Mount Athos in Greece (8th/9th century), was a master of the contemplative practice known in the Orthodox tradition as “watchfulness” or “keeping a guard on the heart”, the cultivation of a watchful awareness by which we may, with God’s help, be liberated from thoughts that present a challenge to us.

In a work called On Watchfulness and Holiness,[2] Hesychios writes with great insight about how we routinely engage with our thoughts, at lightning speed, on a sort of unconscious autopilot. He identifies four steps in a reactive process that can take us from our initial encounter with a thought, through to a concrete act we might have wished to avoid.

I suspect that most of us will have no problem recognising these steps in our own experience. I certainly do!

Step 1 First, a simple thought pops up in our head. Everything that follows is the story of our reactive engagement with this initial thought.

Step 2 Next, we rush at lightning speed to look at the thought, embrace it within the arms of our reactive attention, busily wrapping it with more thoughts as we chat to ourselves about it.

Step 3 The third step, Hesychios says, is our agreement to all that we have whipped up in our heads in reaction to the simple initial thought.

Step 4 The fourth step is the concrete action that the whole process has led us to.

In describing these steps for us, Hesychios is hoping that we might cultivate the awareness and skills to prevent the proverbial snowball running down the hill and growing too large for us to manage, that we might learn to recognise, pause and hopefully stop this reactive process at an early point.

In meditation, we don’t ignore thoughts or try to control them. This just gives them energy and further binds our attention to them. We greet them with silence, with peace.

Each time we notice our attention has raced off to embrace a thought and we are busily chatting to ourself about it, we simply return our attention to our practice. Gently refusing to engage with it any further, we let it go on its way.

As Suzuki taught, with his characteristic blend of wisdom and lightness of touch, “Leave your front door and your back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea!”

By this simple means we cultivate watchful awareness.

We learn to greet life as it is, moment by moment, trusting that God has everything in hand.

God will help us in this, Hesychios writes:

“as the person who looks at the sun has their eyes filled with light, so the person who always gazes intently into their heart cannot fail to be illumined.”

Practised diligently over time, not only may we enter a more peaceful relationship with our thoughts and so with life, but we begin to glimpse something truly extraordinary about ourselves:

“the mind that is constantly watched over, protected from engagement with the forms, images and fantasies that arise within it, is conditioned by nature to give birth from within itself to thoughts filled with light.”

[1] Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shambala Publications.

[2] On Watchfulness and Holiness in The Philokalia, Vol.1, Faber and Faber.

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