Question about bad thoughts

What do the Buddhist teachings tell us about how intrusive thoughts (eg doing this, doing that) get into our minds and about how these can be handled?

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Hello @WalkInMorals, welcome to the forum!

The standard way to deal with unwholesome thoughts is described in MN 20.

However, it should be noted that the sutta here deals with what in modern times we could describe as “ego syntonic” intrusive thoughts that one wishes to correct in one’s mind for the benefit of oneself and others (For example: an argument one previously had pops up in the mind, and anger towards the person arises).

“Ego dystonic” intrusive thoughts, (as it happens in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) however, are a different challenge altogether and the strategies to deal with these are somewhat different.

People trying to deal with this latter kind of thoughts should be very careful employing the strategies outlined in MN 20, as for this specific condition any kind of engagement or forced repulsion of the thoughts is what perpetuates the condition.
These are “fear-based” reactions of the mind, therefore the best way to deal with them is according to MN 4:

Why don’t I get rid of that fear and dread just as it comes, while remaining just as I am?’

Non-sensical intrusive thoughts for someone struggling with OCD, however undesirable, disturbing or even terrifying they may seem are best simply acknowledged and ignored, until they will stop popping up altogether.

Just giving friendly suggestions, not medical advice.

I hope this helps :pray:

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In general terms and without being personal, can you describe a little more specifically what you mean by intrusive thoughts, the “doing this, doing that”?

I think it’s useful to realize that the mind thinks thoughts as the eye sees sights and the nose smells odors. Some thoughts are random and new, most are habituated.

“Whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination.” MN19

As the Buddha’s teachings can be found within the Four Noble Truths, there is the arising of dukkha and the cessation of dukkha, If one can condition a defiled mind by unskillful habituation, one can skillfully condition the mind to purity. The Buddha describes a few ways he did this.

In MN4 he describes overcoming fear and dread by basically not reacting to it and with samadhi. This is a great sutta to read.

In MN19 he assigned sensual, malicious, and cruel thoughts to one class and assigned thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness to the second class. This is a great sutta to read.

In Dependent origination, a foundational mistake we make is operating with a sense that we are a permanent self or entity. Thoughts become “my” thoughts. Thoughts are more permanent because “I” am thinking them. The more we can diminish that sense of self, the better we can let thoughts arise and cease without getting tangled up in them and prevent a future arising.

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Intrusive thoughts of ill-will toward someone, or just general cruel thoughts.

Are these thoughts accompanied by an intention to actually be angry or hurt someone? If so, they are the first kind and MN 20 is a good management strategy.

Or are they just cruel or violent images but without intention, and feel disturbing and random? If so, they are the second kind.

The second link of the noble eightfold path is right thought, and it teaches thoughts of non-ill will, harmlessness, and renunciation. These oppose two of the three unwholesome roots of hatred and greed. The third unwholesome root ignorance, from which the other two arise, is opposed by the development of right view, the first link in the NEP. This is because greed and hatred are emotional defilements, while view is a mental matter. Perceptions arise from views, and changing view changes perceptions. This is how ill-will and cruelty are rooted out.

Before the Buddha attained awakening he found by investigation of the (mental) results that thoughts of greed and hatred did not contribute to his own joy or that of others, or to the path to awakening:

" "And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with ill will arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with ill will has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.’

"As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others… to the affliction of both… it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided. Whenever thinking imbued with ill will had arisen, I simply abandoned it, dispelled it, wiped it out of existence.

"And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with harmfulness arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with harmfulness has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.’

“As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others… to the affliction of both… it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided. Whenever thinking imbued with harmfulness had arisen, I simply abandoned it, dispelled it, wiped it out of existence.”—MN 19

The practitioner must carry out a similar process of investigation of the cause/effect action of thoughts, not only on the unwholesome roots, but also on the wholesome, non-ill will, harmlessness, and renunciation. In this way the view of how things work is changed, that is they cease to become motivated by the emotions contingent upon material gain and loss, and their own mental well being becomes their primary concern.

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(MN20)

Now, suppose that mendicant is focusing on stopping the formation of thoughts, but bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion keep coming up. With teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, they should squeeze, squash, and torture mind with mind. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Their mind becomes stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in samādhi. It’s like a strong man who grabs a weaker man by the head or throat or shoulder and squeezes, squashes, and tortures them. In the same way, a mendicant … with teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, should squeeze, squash, and torture mind with mind. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Their mind becomes stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in samādhi.

What does this mean?

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This is the fifth and final strategy to be employed in case unwholesome thoughts and desires are so persistent and overwhelming that all other previous 4 strategies didn’t work.

It’s the equivalent of pulling the emergency break in a car to avoid an accident.

An example would be if a strong thought of anger towards a person arises in the mind:

  • The first strategy recommends focusing on something else. One tries but the anger is too strong.
  • The second strategy recommends investigating the drawbacks and how much suffering would result from acting out of that anger. One tries but the anger is too strong.
  • The third strategy recommends trying to ignore and forget about the anger. One tries but the anger is too strong.
  • The fourth strategy recommends focusing on stopping the formation of thoughts related to that anger. Basically trying to calm down through relaxation (one popular anger management technique is to count to 10). One tries but the anger is too strong.

At this point if nothing works it means the anger is so strong and overwhelming that something really bad would happen if you don’t find a way to get rid of the anger.

So the fifth strategy is:

  • Trying really hard to just restrain oneself by clenching one’s teeth and “torturing mind with mind”.

Usually (and hopefully :sweat_smile:) it doesn’t come to this.

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Thanks, I understand now!

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Some of the five strategies also have long term application, for example the first and second. The first where a rotten wooden peg is knocked out by a new one also applies to an overall step up in mind states:

“Now, when a monk has abandoned these five obstacles, hindrances that overwhelm awareness and weaken discernment, when he is strong in discernment: for him to understand what is for his own benefit, to understand what is for the benefit of others, to understand what is for the benefit of both, to realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction in knowledge & vision: that is possible.”—AN 5.51. See also SN 46.51 ‘food for the feeding/abandoning of hindrances’.

AN 5.51 illustrates how when there is a mindstate dominated by one of the hindrances (including ill will) it dissipates the energy necessary for awakening. Removing the hindrances means freeing up energy.

The second strategy compared with the Buddha’s strategy for awakening:

‘Truly, these thoughts of mine are unskillful, these thoughts of mine are blameworthy, these thoughts of mine result in stress.’ As he is scrutinizing the drawbacks of those thoughts, those evil, unskillful thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — are abandoned and subside.’—MN 20

The Buddha to be investigates the cause/effect action of types of thought:. This led to the formulation of right thought, the second link of the noble eightfold path:

"And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with sensuality arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with sensuality has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.’

"As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others… to the affliction of both… it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided. Whenever thinking imbued with sensuality had arisen, I simply abandoned it, dispelled it, wiped it out of existence.—MN 19

Sutta cluster: MN 19>MN 20>SN 46.51>AN 5.51

The theme of all these extracts is that thought can have a beneficial or harmful effect on the self and others, and this needs to be investigated.

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