Anxiety and Retraining the Mind




In Buddhist psychology, the instructions for thought transformation are very explicit. The Buddha instructs his followers, “Like a skilled carpenter who removes a coarse peg by knocking it out with a fine one, so a person removes a pain-producing thought by substituting a beautiful one.” The carpenter’s peg is a practical description of how we can remove unhealthy thoughts by substitution. What is required is the selection of a helpful substitute and repeated practice. Repetition is key. Repetition, compassion, and the belief that the painful cycles of thought can be transformed all have a part in developing new patterns of thought.
Even so, some patterns of unhealthy thought—jealousy, anger, fear, unworthiness, and anxiety—are so stubborn they are hard
to tame by simple substitution. For these thoughts, the Buddha offers more forceful methods. His instructions continue, “And when there still arise patterns of unskillful thought, the danger that thoughts will cause pain and suffering should be clearly visualized. Then, naturally, like the abandonment of rotting garbage, the mind will turn from these thoughts and become steady, quiet, clear.” We can actually feel the danger when we are possessed by thoughts of jealousy or anger, or we are in the grip of anxiety. These tighten and stress our whole body. They keep us from rest. And when we consider acting on them, we know the results could be regrettable.
It is important that we don’t judge ourselves when we see these thoughts; the practice is simply to set a powerful new intention. We can see that our thoughts are unbidden, impersonal, painful. Out of compassion for ourselves we can feel their danger. “Like rotten garbage,” says the Buddha, “we can put them down.” – Jack Kornfield


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