In a time-honored story set in an ancient Himalayan kingdom, a novice monk was excited at the prospect of meeting his teacher for the first time. He was on fire with questions but sensed that this was not the time to ask them. Instead, he listened carefully to the teacher’s instructions. They were brief and to the point. “Get up early tomorrow and climb to a cave you’ll find at the top of this mountain. Sit from dawn to dusk and have no thoughts. Use any method you wish to banish thought. When the day is over, come and tell me how it went.” At dawn the next day the novice found the cave, made himself comfortable, and waited for his mind to settle. He thought that if he sat long enough it would become blank. Instead, his mind was crowded
with thoughts. Soon he started to worry about failing the task he had been set. He tried to force the thoughts out of his mind, but that just produced more thoughts. He shouted at them to “Go away,” but the words echoed noisily in the cave. He j umped up and down, held his breath, shook his head. Nothing seemed to work. He’d never known such a bombardment of thoughts in his life.
At the end of the day he climbed back down, completely dispirited, wondering what his teacher’s response would be. Perhaps he’d be dismissed as a failure, unsuitable for further training. But the teacher just burst out laughing at the tale of his mental and physical gymnastics. ”Very good ! You have tried really hard and done well. Tomorrow you should go back to the cave. Sit from dawn to dusk having nothing but thoughts. Think of anything you like all day long, but allow no gaps to occur between your thoughts. ”
The novice was really pleased. This would be easy. He was bound to succeed. After all, “having thoughts” is what had been happening to him all day. The next day saw him climbing with confidence up to his cave and taking his seat. After a little while he realized that all was not well. His thoughts started to slow down. Occasionally, a pleasant thought would come to mind and he would decide to follow it for a while. But soon it dried up. He tried to think grand thoughts, philosophical speculations, to worry about the state of the universe. Anything. He started to run low on things to think about and even got a little bored. Where had all his thinking gone ? Soon the “best” thoughts he could get seemed a little worn, like an old coat that had become threadbare. Then he noticed gaps in his thinking. Oh dear, this was what he had been told to avoid. Another failure.
At the end of the day he felt pretty wretched. He’d failed again. He climbed down the mountain and went to find his teacher, who burst out laughing again. “Congratulations ! Wonderful! Now you know how to practice perfectly.” He didn’t understand why the teacher was so pleased. What on earth had he learned ? The teacher was pleased because the novice was now ready to recognize something of real significance: You cannot force the mind. And if you try to, you won’t like what comes of it.
There is no need to climb to the top of a mountain to come to this important conclusion on your own. You might like to try this simple experiment right now. Look away from this monitor/display for a minute and think of anything you like, but try not to think of a white bear. One minute. Make sure that no thought or image of that animal occurs to you.
Has the minute passed ? What did you find ?
Most people find they can’t completely suppress thoughts of white bears. Professor Daniel Wegner and colleagues have shown that when we try to suppress thoughts like this, what we resist persists: our attempts to force the mind can rebound in exactly the opposite direction from the one we want. Not only is it difficult to suppress the thought in the first place, but later, if we’re allowed to think of white bears, the thought of them comes up more often than if we had not been trying to suppress them earlier. If this is true for neutral thoughts and images such as bears, it’s not difficult to imagine what happens when we try to suppress negative thoughts, images, and memories of a very personal nature. If we’ve experienced persistent low mood in the past, we are likely to put a lot of mental effort into keeping negative thinking at bay. Research by Drs. Wenzlaff, Bates, and associates shows that this can work for a little
while-but at a huge cost: those who put more effort into keeping negatives out of mind end up being more depressed than those who do not. From such research, many psychologists have confirmed the conclusion long suggested by Inside-out wisdom: trying to suppress unwanted thoughts is not a very effective way to stabilize and clear our minds. The healthier alternative to become aware of and let go of our thoughts/feelings.