We are told to be aware, to pay attention, to create space. Yet conscious engagement with thoughts, with the intention to change them skillfully, has immense benefits. Although counterintuitive, it boosts the ability to be mindful and accelerates spiritual growth.
Maturing the ego and cultivating a skilled, self-serving intellect, is just as rewarding as the transcendental elements of spiritual practice. But the message in the West is often black-or-white; the ego is all bad, the solution to troubling thoughts is always being in the Now.
Living in the present is simple and impossibly hard. The complexity of mind distracts in a multitude of ways. Neglecting the quality of thoughts makes presence much harder; if your thoughts work against you, the task is greater. Yet it’s rare to see spiritual guidance on techniques adjusting the thinking mind.
Mindfulness is the practice of noticing thoughts and sensations, as they are, as they arise, without judgement. On the contrary, cognitive reframing directly engages with thought, to rationalise them and change their structure. The former improves the relationship with mind, the latter improves the contents of mind.
Both of these skills influence behaviour, and consequently, how we engage with life. They complement each other so well, neglecting either tool is detrimental to spiritual growth.
The World Of Thought And The World Of Experience
Picture this — a World of Thought, made of deep rooted beliefs, thinking processes, habits, assumptions, judgements. You’ve paid attention to this inner-reality for the majority of your life. The terrain is familiar, and no matter how rough, no matter how much suffering caused, it’s a comfort zone. In any given moment, life is half-lived in the World of Thought.
But this world is a fantasy. The real world is the World of Experience. Leaving the World of Thought and connecting fully with the World of Experience is new terrain. The journey isn’t easy; the path between worlds cuts through a jungle, so intimidating, it would send shivers down the spine of Indiana Jones.
The World of Thought is fixed. The ego is happy there. As Emperor of this home from home, the ego has ultimate status and control. Compare this to an uncertain, impermanent, chaotic, and uncontrollable World of Experience; where the ego recoils.
Some days, the World of Thought is on full display, flashing lights, hustle and bustle, busyness, a carnival atmosphere impossible to ignore. Those days, our attention is directed to this land. Other days, when the mind is calm and the World of Thought is quiet, the journey to the World of Experience is fairly easy.
But the World of Thought is always there. And as we grow in awareness, we find ourselves travelling between these two worlds, continuously. To make the journey smoother, cognitive reframing is required.
Adjusting The World of Thought
Altering the landscape of the World of Thought is sensible, knowing we’ll spend time there, even against our best wishes. Without mindfulness, the World of Thought is an isolated island. Awareness of its illusory nature allows us to construct transport links to the World of Experience, to build bridges and create space for rivers to run to the ocean of existence.
Without mindfulness, the World of Thought is an isolated island.
By default, the World of Thought is a scary place. A realm of self-sabotage, self-criticism, limitations. Questioning, reframing and rationalising these thoughts, beliefs and assumptions — not accepting them as truth — prunes the landscape. The terrain becomes supportive and less critical, transforming the World of Thought to an ally, not an enemy.
This process is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges, where the focus is improving quality of content. Additionally, mindfulness increases clarity by creating a healthy, detached relationship with the World of Thought.
Making The Most Of The Tools On Offer
A distortion in my cognition is black-and-white thinking. It’s a relic from my days of depression, an old thinking pattern, linked to the binary fight-or-flight response. It’s dormant, but resurfaces at times of emotional stress. When making decisions or problem solving, if I get stuck in this frame of mind, the pattern creates a false dilemma, a psychological term for ignoring nuances of situations by viewing situations as either/or scenarios.
Clearly, this isn’t skillful or optimal. I box myself in, reduce my options, and increase the sense of limitation. This increases the pressure on the decision making process and leads to more stress, and sometimes the paralysis of procrastination. Without utilising mindfulness and reframing, this unhelpful pattern would remain unquestioned and become a habitual reaction.
As my awareness expands, when I engage with this pattern, mindfulness provides breathing space between the World of Thought and the present. I can see the thoughts and emotional responses with clarity. Consequently, this clarity allows me to reframe those thoughts, without overly identifying with them.
The more I meditate and improve concentration of mind, the better I get at spotting this in the moment; I’m able to control the emotions and see the thoughts without losing myself in them. Often, reframing is retrospective. When I had therapy, I’d talk through recent events which triggered emotional responses, analysing them with the lucidity of time and distance.
Retrospective or in-the-moment, awareness of this tendency is remembered the next time a similar situation arises. I detect it quicker. I adjust, reflect, contemplate. If I spot it within an hour, whereas previously it took two — great! That’s progress. Eventually, awareness and reframing creates new, healthy habits. New, self-serving synapses form.
Dealing With Modern Day Demands
As architects of our lives, we’re responsible for the tools at our disposal. When attempting to manifest the lives we want, to make dreams a reality, to fulfil goals, detecting defective tools and adjusting them helps us build foundations with increasing efficiency.
Would this matter if I were a Buddhist monk in the Himalayas, without the pressures of modern living? In the monastic environment, opting for presence as a one-size-fits-all has little repercussions. I sampled this during a Vipassana retreat, where the only goal was meditation and self-enquiry. I didn’t need to worry too much about challenging thoughts, it was besides the point.
But returning to external demands, of work, socialising, technology, social media, obligations, roles, increased complexity in thinking, in problem solving, in planning…? Skillful thinking becomes a necessary support system when this part of mind is engaged and activated. Different situations require different tools. Knowing when to focus on mindfulness, and when to reframe, is a process of experimentation, experience, and intuition.
For example, if extremely anxious, the most effective on-the-spot approach is bringing awareness to the present moment by focusing on the breath, disengaging from stories and judgements, and attempting to deconstruct anxiety into its component sensations and thoughts.
But what if, in the build up to a social event, anxiety surfaces, over and over, making presence difficult? What if the recurring thoughts cause stress? Then assess cognitive distortions, such as imagining worst-case-scenarios or catastrophizing, or jumping to conclusions, and reframe them. Journaling this technique or talking with a friend can cause an instant reduction in the emotional charge.
The Transcendence Trap
The habitual reaction of attempting to just notice thought, regardless of context, is a misconception with the opposite of the desired effect. I fall into this trap at times, despite benefitting immensely from CBT techniques. “They’re just thoughts,” I tell myself, as I will myself to presence in a bout of frustration caused by irrational, intrusive and generally bothersome thinking patterns.
In these moments, the World of Thought needs a little attentiveness before making the journey to the World of Experience. Work is needed on the quality of content, before mindfulness transforms the relationship to that content.
Always transcending thought is a misconception of mindfulness.
It turns out the Buddha provided guidance for this trap. In Vitakkasanthana Sutta: The Relaxation of Thoughts, the Buddha defines unskilled thoughts as “imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion.” I imagine each thought encoded with a certain energy, or frequency; some harm us, some benefit us, some are fuelled by fear, some are fuelled by love.
Buddha advises the monk bothered by unskilled thoughts to “scrutinize the drawbacks of those thoughts,” to note how they result in stress, discontent or blame. Through scrutiny, unskillful thoughts are abandoned and subside, and “with their abandoning, he steadies his mind right within, settles it, unifies it, and concentrates it.”
This is Buddha’s way of acknowledging the necessity of occasionally engaging with thoughts, consciously, with the intention to transform unskilled thinking into skilled thinking. Reframing is sometimes the optimal route to concentration, a bridge-builder making the journey between the World of Thought and the World of Experience easier to travel.