Questioning What We Think


by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron ©

Examining our thoughts and asking ourselves if they are accurate is crucial for our well-being and the well-being of those around us. If we don’t do this, unquestioned thoughts, assumptions, and emotions, which are potentially erroneous, run our life. When examining these, being kind and truthful with ourselves is important. We accept that these thoughts, assumptions, and emotions are in our mind. We don’t scold ourselves, “I shouldn’t think this. I shouldn’t feel that way.” If we “should” on ourselves, we won’t be able to do an accurate investigation because we’ll be too busy suppressing or repressing those thoughts and feelings. We’ll just paste another thought or emotion on top of the old one without really believing the new one in our hearts. Clearly that doesn’t work.

The first thing to do is to discriminate a thought from an emotion. We say things such as, “I feel like they don’t accept me.” Actually, that is a thought. We may feel hurt or frustrated, but it’s because we’re thinking others don’t accept us. How do we know they don’t accept us? We don’t. We haven’t asked them. Instead, on the basis of how they looked at us or a comment they made, our mind constructs a story that we believe. As soon as you hear yourself saying, “I feel like . . .” stop and recognize that you can’t “feel like” something. You are thinking. Similarly, we say, “I feel rejected.” Actually, rejected isn’t a feeling; it’s a thought-we’re thinking someone is rejecting us.

After we have isolated the thought we’re thinking, the next step is to ask ourselves, “Is that true? How do I know it’s true?” Ask yourself what evidence you have to prove the validity of that thought. It’s really startling at this time to see that we really don’t know something is true; we’re assuming it based on some flimsy evidence.

Some of the thoughts that we often get stuck on are, “I’m a bad person,” “I’m inadequate,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m not good enough.” These self-deprecating thoughts are some of the most ingrained and the most harmful ones we have. When we think them, depression, despair, and anger overwhelm us and it’s difficult to see clearly. Such thoughts impact all aspects of our lives-our health, our relationships, our work, our spiritual practice. Sometimes it is hard to discern that these thoughts are present because we are so habituated to thinking them that they form the stage on which our life takes place.

When we notice these thoughts are present behind our unpleasant emotions, we have to stop and question them: “Is it true that I’m a bad person? Prove it to me!” We may start listing all sorts of mistakes we have made, but we keep questioning, “Does that mistake make me a bad person?”

In Tibetan Buddhism we learn debating, and now we apply this same technique to test the validity of the thoughts that lie behind our low self-esteem. In debate we use syllogisms consisting of a subject, a predicate, and a reason. For example, in the syllogism “sound is impermanent because it’s a product of causes,” “sound” is the subject (A), “impermanent” is the predicate (B), and “because it’s a product of causes” is the reason (C). For this syllogism to be true, three criteria need to be true. First, the subject is present in the reason; in other words sound is a product of causes. Second, if it’s the reason, it has to be the predicate. That is, if something is a product of causes, it must be impermanent. Third, if it’s not the predicate, it isn’t the reason. If it’s not impermanent, it isn’t a product of causes. To put it more simply:

A is C.
If it’s C, it must be B.
If it’s not B, it can’t be C.

Now let’s apply it to the syllogism “I’m a bad person because I lied.” That I lied is true. But is it true that everyone who lies is a bad person? Does one action make someone a bad person? Do thousands of harmful actions make someone a bad person? Since everyone has the potential to become a Buddha, how can anyone be a bad person?

What about the thought, “I’m a bad person because this person doesn’t like me.” Does someone not liking us make us a bad person? Does someone not loving us mean we are defective? Someone not liking us or not loving us has nothing to do with us. It is a thought in another person’s mind, and as we know, thoughts are not so reliable and they change frequently.  Tomorrow is pt. 2 of this essay.  For more info on the author’s blog, please visit her site here.

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