Meditation and mindfulness practices have been gaining a new level of interest in the West since the 1970’s following the development of a stress-reduction program developed by Dr. John Kabat-Zin. The purpose of meditation is as varied as the practice itself.
Monastics of various Buddhist traditions practice meditation vigorously for many years to reach enlightenment, fulfill the promise of Nirvana, or seek an end of suffering.
Others use meditation for very practical purposes such as to improve mental health, find meditation helps to calm the mind, reduce anxiety, and improve concentration.
Regardless of the purpose, the practice of meditation includes directing one’s attention to the experiences of the present moment in an open and non-judgmental manner. When one can direct and hold attention to an object for a period of time, one begins to have insights or a deeper understanding of that object.
It is not uncommon to have negative thoughts from time to time. We all get tired or stressed, and it is easy for our perceptions to become negatively altered, thus requiring the need to “re-charge.” Pervasive, obsessive negative thinking is a challenge of a different sort. A “glass-half-empty” world view can lead to serious mental health issues such as Major Depressive Disorder, as well as producing the symptomatic presentation of many personality disorders. Meditation is an immensely helpful practice that helps turn down the charge of negative thinking and reduce the impact that this mental process has on our health and well-being.
Reduce The Charge
In Buddhist Psychology, mental health “treatment” is driven through an approach of understanding the true nature of the mind. Only when the true nature of the mind is “known” can we cultivate mental processes that are beneficial and refrain from cultivating mental processes that are not beneficial. We are also able to distinguish between beneficial and non-beneficial mental processes.
The nature of our mind is to engage in many mental processes such as planning, imagining, concentrating, not-concentrating, creating, recalling, and projecting (to name a few). These processes result in mental objects, which include various beliefs and perceptions. The resulting beliefs and perceptions alter our mood and physical health in either a negative or positive manner. This chain of events explains why mental processes, such as negative thinking, have a significant negative impact on our mental and physical health. To break a link in the automatic and unconscious chain of events that results from negative thinking, we direct our attention to the thoughts, recognizing that just because the mind produces an object (negative thoughts) does not make the object real nor accurate.
Meditation Practices to Reduce Negative Thoughts
To reduce negative thoughts while meditating, one may direct awareness of the processes of the mind and the objects (thoughts, beliefs, perceptions) that result from various mental processes.
Pannati awareness is a practice that involves naming the mental process, such as saying “planning, planning, planning” as mental processes arise. The practice of Pannai often helps the practitioner to come back to “observing” the mind, as opposed to going down a rabbit hole of negative thinking.
When a negative thought arises, recognize that the mind just created a negative thought. There is a mental process, but there is something that can observe the mental process. There are two things, not one. The thought is one thing. The “thing” that can observe the thought is another thing that we call Observers Mind of Consciousness.
Observing the mental process helps to put space between the narrative of the thought and the thought itself. This reduces the “charge” or belief in the negative thought. We then begin to look at negative thoughts with clarity. Is the negative thought true? Is it accurate? Also, is it beneficial to myself or others to think in this manner?
I dreamed last night that I had a rogue kangaroo in my kitchen that was peeing on the floor. My mind created a story while I was sleeping. This morning when I recalled the dream, I observed the mental object with curiosity and amusement. I did not go downstairs to look for the kangaroo. I did not confuse the dream with reality. Meditation helps us to understand that most of our mental objects, especially negative thoughts, have, to a greater or lesser degree, elements of fantasy and inaccuracy.
Negative thinking, like dreaming, is a mental process that produces fantastical and surreal mental objects. The problem is they have a bigger impact on our health than a silly dream because we believe them to be true and accurate. They take up space in our hearts and mind and drive how we feel, what we believe, and how we experience ourselves and the world.
Negative thoughts can be directed outward or inward. Outwardly directed negative thoughts result in negative beliefs about the world, job, family, or partner. Inwardly directed negative thoughts result in negative beliefs about the self. In either direction, they cause anger, fear, and ignorance to manifest. Use meditation and mindfulness to see the presence of negative thoughts and pull them out as if they are a pervasive weed growing in the garden of your heart and mind. We may then experience the liberation from negative thinking and allow love to replace fear, wisdom to replace ignorance, faith to replace doubt, and generosity to replace selfishness.