On not getting swept away by mental content

There’s a specific subskill of meditation that I call “not getting swept away by the content”, that I think is generally valuable.

It goes like this. You sit down to meditate and focus on your breath or whatever, and then a worrying thought comes to your mind. And it’s a real worry, something important. And you are tempted to start thinking about it and pondering it and getting totally distracted from your meditation… because this is something that you should probably be thinking about, at some point.

So there’s a mental motion that you make, where you note that you are getting distracted by the content of a thought. The worry, even if valid, is content. If you start thinking about whether you should be engaging with the worry, those thoughts are also content.

And you are meditating, meaning that this is the time when you shouldn’t be focusing on content. Anything that is content, you dismiss, without examining what that content is.

So you dismiss the worry. It was real and important, but it was content, so you are not going to think about it now.

You feel happy about having dismissed the content, and you start thinking about how good of a meditator you are, and… realize that this, too, is a thought that you are getting distracted by.

So you dismiss that thought, too. Doesn’t matter what the content of the thought is, now is not the time.

And then you keep letting go of thoughts that came to your mind, but that doesn’t seem to do anything and you start to wonder whether you are doing this meditation thing right… and aha, that’s content too. So you dismiss that…

The thing that is going on here is that usually, when you experience a distracting thought and want to get rid of it, you often start engaging in an evaluation process of whether that thought should be dismissed or not. By doing so, you may end up engaging with the thought’s own internal logic – which might be totally wrong for the situation.

Yes, maybe your relationship is in tatters and your partner is about to leave you. And maybe there are things that you can do to avoid that fate. Or maybe there are not. But if you try to dismiss the thought by disputing the truth or importance of those things, you will fail. Because they are true and important.

The way to short-circuit that is to move the evaluation a meta-level up and just decide that whatever is content, gets dismissed on that basis. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s content, so not what you are doing now. You avoid getting entangled up with the thought’s internal logic, because you never engage with the internal logic in the first place.

Having this mental motion available to you is also useful outside meditation, if you are prone to having any other thoughts that aren’t actually useful.

As I write this, I’m sitting at a food place, eating the food and watching the traffic outside. And, like I often am, I am bothered by pessimistic thoughts about the future of humanity, and all the different disasters that could befall the world.

Yeah, I could live to see the day when AIs destroy the world, or worse.

That’s true.

That’s also content. I’m not going to engage with that content right now.

Hmm.

I look outside the window, watch cars pass by, and finish my dinner.

The food is tasty.

5 comments

  1. It took me a while to figure out that “dismissing a thought” is a form of grasping. If a distraction arises, I used to try to banish it, zap it, stop it. These are all attentional motions that actually engage with the mental processes that caused the thought to arise, giving it fuel. The correct move is to *not touch* the distraction with any kind of intent at all, and just gently reset your attention on your meditation object, and let the distraction just sputter out in your peripheral awareness. You kill the distraction by passively starving it of attention. The underlying mental module gets bored and stops trying to intrude into attention.

  2. I often find myself scared that the thought I’m dismissing is something I’ll forget later (or the issue is something I’ll forget to deal with, or a related pattern). Something like anxiety about my mental filing system. Have you had a similar worry, and, if so, did you have a general strategy for dealing with it?

    • I assume that if it’s genuinely important, it’ll come back. If it seems really important and something that you just can’t ignore, you could have a notebook or something next to you when you meditate, so that you can stop to write down anything that seems too important to ignore. On the few times that I’ve done something similar, my mind stopped generating such urgent-seeming thoughts after I’d written down the first few ones, making it easier to ignore the rest.

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