All too often thoughts set thoughts in motion with little or no conscious intervention on our part, creating an inner avalanche of ideation. Helplessly caught up in this endless cascade, we are swept away by the stories generated by our hopes and fears.
To change the metaphor, each thought sends forth an echoing cry, like an animal calling for its mate, and this cry penetrates the heart, evoking an emotional response. The end result is suffering, stress, depression, anxiety.
Our thoughts form consistent story lines: “Nobody likes me,” “If only such-and-such a thing would happen, then I’d be happy,” “I just know this is going to go wrong,” “I bet he did that deliberately.” As we listen, without mindfulness, to these story lines, day in and day out (and at night too, for our inner dramatic arc does not cease with conscious thought) we remain utterly convinced that these stories are truth, not imaginings.
And yet thoughts are not facts, but merely the projections of our hopes and fears. As we develop greater mindfulness we begin to recognize this, to catch ourselves in the act of indulging in a story line whose punch line is an ache in the heart. And we start to be able to let go of these storylines, realizing that they will bring us nothing good.
A further step in some meditation traditions is to cultivate thoughts that will enhance wellbeing rather than diminish it. And so, in the development of lovingkindness practice we repeat phrases such as “May I be well, may I be happy,” and in mantra practice we repeat phrases that evoke enlightened qualities of insight, compassion, and energy. Even the traditional recitation of the refuges and precepts can be seen as a way of convincing the mind of the value of committing oneself wholeheartedly to the path of awareness and compassion.