Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about thinking. During a meditation session, it dawned on me that there are 3 main reactions to thoughts. Which reaction is chosen will likely dictate the physiological response to it. Because of this, I’ve been trying to unpack the lead-up to those reactions, and understand how, if possible, to harness or influence the selection process.
It started during the beginning of a meditation session. My mind was bouncing around, as it does often when first sitting, and I was noticing myself trying to push back my thoughts. I was actively resisting the idea of thinking, which goes against common wisdom. The more you push, the harder the thoughts push back. After acknowledging what I was doing, I started to converse with myself about that fact. “Why am I resisting this today? Is there something deeper going on, or am I just tired? Am I overthinking my resistance?” After a few rounds of back and forth with myself, I settled on the fact that I’m overthinking things, and that I should let go. I should settle for being indifferent toward my thoughts. Once I did and began breathing through the chaos, the muddied mind started to settle. The pond of thought became clear, and the breath came into focus. The rest of the sit was fairly still, but when thoughts came up, I practiced that indifference as best as I could.
When I was done, as I was reconnecting with my visual senses, the 3 reactions aligned in my mind. Normally, these processes are in the background. They pop up on their own and seem to dictate how I feel about a certain situation.
To help myself identify which reaction is taking place, I’ve labelled them as follows: Resistive, Conversational, and Indifferent. Since that session, I’ve been trying to notice which reaction is taking place. And man is it a challenge.
The Resistive Reaction
When in this mode, I’m actively trying to interrupt what I’m thinking about. Or, I’m battling the feelings that are coming with it. Whether it be anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety or happiness, I’m trying to discard the thoughts and emotions that are coming up in an unproductive way. Resistance isn’t to be confused with redirection in this case. Redirection is shifting attention away from what you’re thinking about or feeling, by replacing one stimulus with another. I believe redirection has its place. But, I do think there are better alternatives, which I’ll touch on a bit further down. In the case of a resistive reaction, I notice myself thinking “Oh no, I don’t want to feel this.” Or, “No, not now, go away!” Often the resistance creates a greater sense of discomfort. The resistance frequently amplifies the negative effects and creates added stress.
I don’t have a good solution to the resistive reaction as of now. There have been times in my life when this reaction was less prevalent. But lately, it’s my most common one. Why? I’m not sure. If anything, trying to spend so much energy figuring it out is a form of resistance in and of itself. It’s the most paradoxical of the 3 reactions, which makes it the trickiest to contend with.
The Conversational Reaction
This is when my thoughts are the most quizzical. It’s typically the reaction that bridges the gap between resistive and indifference. It can go either way at this point. Most of the time, I can recognize this response to my thoughts because I’m asking myself a lot of questions about what’s coming in. “Why am I thinking this? Can I reframe this? Is there something in this thought that should be addressed or discarded?”
From there, it’s a matter of mindset. What’s my base mode of operation right now? Am I on higher alert, or am I fairly relaxed? If I’m relaxed, I can shrug it off and move it to indifference. When I’m on high alert, the resistance beings. This reaction is like the air traffic controller of response. Which reaction gates are free, and where can I direct this thought?
What’s most frustrating for me, personally, is that this used to be my most frequent reaction to a thought, and it often ended up in indifference. It became the way for me to be self-reflective in a productive way at a moment's notice. It also helped me in my job. As a programmer, I was often stuck in a conversational loop with myself. It was how I wrote code, debugged problems and came up with architecture solutions. The only real “harnessing” I’ve been able to do with this reaction lately, is to attempt to use it to reframe things that come up before they become a problem. In the hope to usher them into an indifferent reaction. It’s not easy. But, if cognitive behavioural therapy has anything to say, doing it more often should help build the neural pathway back to indifference.
The Indifferent Reaction
This is my most sought-after reaction. One bordering on apathy. The indifferent reaction can also be seen as acceptance. What comes up and at you can be put aside. It took me years of meditation to realize that when teachers and guides tell you to “let go” of your thought, they mean become indifferent to them. Accept it. It’s not even a matter of being ok with the fact that you’re thinking during your sit, it’s a matter of accepting whatever thought arises.
The act of acknowledgement and letting it pass, like a cloud in the sky, or traffic in the streets, is an act of indifference. Like clouds and traffic, thoughts move without your influence. You don’t need to identify with your thoughts, just like you don’t need to identify with the shapes of the clouds, or the cars as they pass you.
I suppose there’s a paradox in this next statement, but understanding this has given me something to strive for when thinking. The conclusion that I seek indifference to find happiness is amusing and counter-intuitive to me. It seems impossible in some ways. But, I’ve seen its magic, and have lived it first-hand many times. The peace of indifference towards an outcome, towards your thoughts, is a magical place to be.
That apathy happens most often when meditating for me. After the initial mental cooling-off period of the first few minutes, the pond settles, and the water clears, creating that elation. During the day, it’s another story. It’s almost as though at each mental turn of my waking days, I’m met with an exhausting decision tree of thought. Instead of taking in what comes up, acknowledging it, and pushing it aside in an apathetic manner, I get caught up.
“What if?” The combination of words is responsible for everything great and terrible in our world. It’s impressive how much power those 2 words hold. They can either lead you to world-changing solutions, or seemingly life-ending results. Harnessing indifference, and the ability to use the conversational reaction to unpack your what-ifs as they come up will likely lead to more world-altering solutions than seemingly world-ending ones. But, the ability to get the routes in order requires a lifetime of practice and patience.