The following is my adaptation* of the Buddha’s Vitakkasanthana Sutta, roughly “How to Remove Unwanted and Obsessive Thoughts.” There are many wonderful translations available via numerous resources (see my note at bottom), so I urge those interested in learning more about this practice to review other versions.
I’ve focused on creating a version that is friendly to those who haven’t studied the pali canon for the years… well, decades actually… that’s required to get a clear handle on the valuable wisdom wrapped in the now 2,500 year old form. I’ve tried to keep the language crisp and clear, while removing all the repetitions and digressions that were inserted into the lesson for the purposes of oral transmission.
At one time the Buddha was staying Anathapindika’s Monastery at Savatthi. During this period he addressed those who were practicing with him: “Sometimes, unskillful, harmful thoughts intrude into awareness, filling the mind the craving, aversion or self-centered delusion. These agitations make it difficult for the meditator to develop and maintain inner peace.
There are five ways to respond when this occurs:
First, when obsessive thoughts grab hold of attention, one should cultivate a new, skillful reflection to take the place of harmful thoughts.
Focusing on the new thought, the harmful ones will eventually recede. As the obsessions recede, the mind becomes settled and concentrated. Just as when a carpenter uses a small piece of wood to knock out a larger piece of wood that is stuck in a wall, so too can quieter, less repetitive thoughts replace louder, monotonous ones.
Second, if obsessive thoughts continue to grab one’s attention, one should one should analyze the unwanted, intrusive thoughts, noting how they create agitation and stress in the present and suffering in the long term.
Seeing clearly these drawbacks, the harmful ones will eventually recede. As the obsessions recede, the mind becomes settled and concentrated. Just as when someone who likes to wear jewelry would be put off if a rotting snake carcass was offered for wearing as a necklace, so too can analyzing the short and long term drawbacks of repetitive thoughts lead to their repudiation and release.
Third, if obsessive thoughts continue to grab one’s attention, one should learn to acknowledge such thoughts while disregarding their content.
When thoughts are noted without adding rapt attention, harmful thoughts eventually recede. As the obsessions recede, the mind becomes settled and concentrated. Just as when we see someone disagreeable we acknowledge them then look somewhere else, so too can acknowledging then recognizing the presence of unskillful thoughts then moving on lead their relinquishment.
Fourth, if obsessive thoughts continue to grab one’s attention, one should focus on alleviating the physical stresses hidden beneath the thoughts [ie lengthening the breath, softening a tight stomach, relaxing the shoulders and jaw, etc].
As the body is relaxed, harmful thoughts eventually recede. As the obsessions recede, the mind becomes settled and concentrated. Just as someone hurrying about in a frantic, busy state, might finally think ‘Why don’t I slow down? Maybe even take a seat, even lie down for awhile?’ which could in turn bring about a state of calm, so too can relaxing the body bring peace to the mind.
Finally, if all else fails and obsessive thoughts continue to grab one’s attention, one should clench and constrain the unskillful obsessions with willpower.
Just as when someone strong can hold down someone who is evil but weaker, so too can the focused mind overcome unskillful obsessions.
Using all of the tools above, one can gain mastery over thinking mind. Eventually on can think what one wants while abandoning thoughts that are unwanted. In this way one can bring about an end of needless stress and suffering.
* My adaptation was based on looking at the original pali and consulting translations by Soma Thera, thanisarro bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Nanamoli.