Most people who try to meditate experience a number of challenges. Whether it’s not having enough time, being too restless, or feeling physical discomfort, there’s a long laundry list of obstacles that people run (or sit) into. One of the most common questions I get in my classes is, “It’s difficult to meditate when my mind has so many negative thoughts. What do I do about that?”
Let me offer an answer through the case study of a splinter. Anyone who’s gotten a small piece of wood or glass stuck under their skin is familiar with the tantalyzing frustration of having such intense pain caused by something so small and miniscsule.
Like a universal phenomenon, every splinter recipient in history has tried the same self-treatment method: uselessly picking at it with the fingers, before trying the pinch and bite method to get it out from under their skin.
When you finally surrender to the nurse’s office, mad-eyed and salivating from the effort, she offers you the most simple advice you could receive: you’ve got to wait it out and let the splinter come out on its own.
The splinter is, of course, analogous to negative thoughts in meditation. It’s not unusual for meditation sessions to be constantly interrupted by a stream of crazy thoughts (I can’t believe John hasn’t texted me back yet! He probably went out to dinner with Sally last night. Oh, I’m getting hungry. I wonder if I still have that leftover pasta from last week. Have I brushed my teeth yet? Maybe I have a missed call from John…)
Typically, our natural intuitive reaction to negative thoughts is (1) get caught up in the thought, (2) feel an emotional charge, and (3) try to shove the thought and emotion under the rug. Can’t have bad thoughts disrupting the peace, right?! But as the sweet nurse would tell you, fidgeting with your splinter is only going to make it hurt more and take longer to come out. Sure, you can choose to attack a splinter with a needle and tweezers, but the inevitable result is going to be a big red ball of inflammation.
This phenomenon is encapsulated well by a quote from Carl Jung, who pointed out that “What you resist, persists.”
So here is the key: rather than bringing judgment, criticism, or frustration to a negative thought, take a deep breath and lean back from it. Oftentimes the thought, just like a splinter, is actually a form of pain or negative energy trying to release itself from your body or mind.
And while the natural reaction is to push back on that energy — just like our natural reaction is to push back at people who aggravate us — by doing so we are simply making the thought more deeply entrenched in our subconscious.
Meditation offers us the opportunity to recognize the content of our thought patterns, take a step back, and let them pass through. It also gives us the rewarding insight that the half-life of a negative thought is incredibly short when we choose not to engage with it.
Better yet, we can choose to replace the negative thought with something entirely different: a slow and calming breath. By training our brains to substitute provocative states of mind with deep and conscious breathing, we can create a habit of transforming our suffering into flow.
There are an endless number of parralel examples: scratching your mosquito bites causes a longer recovery time, and swatting your hands at a bee will make it more likely to sting you. Letting a scary bee buzz around you is difficult, and sometimes the bee will even make a landing on your body. But once it realizes that you are not a flower, it will gently buzz away, unlikely to return again. So it goes, with negative thoughts.
This is the skill of non-attachment, and it is this process of release that makes meditation such a tranquil and transformative practice. Ultimately, negative thoughts are an experience shared by everybody on Earth, and they have a tendency to come out loud and proud during meditation. But when that splinter finally comes out from your skin on its own, that is one of the sweetest feelings in the universe.
Nate Macanian is a mindfulness meditation teacher from New York. See more of his work and writings at www.natemacanian.com