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5 ways to resist obsessive thoughts (Vitakkasanthana)

The mind can be thought of as a committee
Our thoughts are present by many "voices," some skillful and unskillful
W there are some skillful voices in there, focusing on useful ideas, there are also the many voices in the "committee" that cause us suffering by advancing and encouraging useless, stress inducing ideas, plans, worries.

Some examples of unskillful, stress producing obsessions
—are dedictated to figuring out the worst possible outcomes (fear) of any situation
—fixate on unknowable future events, i.e. what will we experience later in life?
—try to figure out what other people are thinking about us
—compare ourselves with others, especially in material concerns
in general, the buddha broke these down the thoughts of craving, aversion and delusion.

How unskillful internal voices persuade us
some of these committee members try to get their way by
—most work by repeating the same thought over and over
—some split into thousands of variations that seem different, but are all equally unskillful
(e.g. worrying about all the possible bad outcomes of an upcoming situation)
—(manic) trying to focus on the attention incessantly on one perception
—(panic attacks)can cause hyperventilation which causes dizziness
—blocking out the other senses, causing a claustrophobic mind
—(all negative states)create stress in a part of the body that registers gut feelings

working on multiple flanks.
when an obsessive thought is at its strongest, its working on all playing levels
causing rapid breathing, tightened stomachs/throats/shoulders, a mind that feels small, and repeated thoughts.

we tend to focus on thinking too exclusively, and use the wrong approach.
—our habit in these situations is to argue with the repetitive thoughts.
—most fear based thoughts are created by parts of the mind (amygdala, striatum) that don't understand logic, they just know when they don't like something.
—very often there are other approaches to working with fear that do work.

Vitakka-santhana sutta MN20, ending thoughts
In the middle length suttas the Buddha gave a powerful teaching on five ways to neutralize repetitive, invasive thoughts

note: should be practiced in meditation with minor irritating thoughts, rather than waiting until the thoughts become too powerful

1. substituting thoughts (replace)
"When evil unskillful thoughts arise one should—in order to get rid of that thought—reflect instead on a different, skillful mental object (dhamma). This is like when a carpenter uses one peg to knock out another peg that is stuck." in letting go we exchange something compelling for something greater in the long term

some examples of skillful thoughts that don't cause lasting stress
—good will & forgiveness when one is feeling animosity
—compassion for when we are hard on ourselves
—appreciation for envy of others; gratitude for feeling less than
—reflecting on karma (our suffering is caused less by external events than by our own intentions)
—generosity for feeling powerless or poor
—renunciation for craving

make the skillful thoughts more interesting
If you've slipped off skillful thought to a thought that's destructive, it may be that the skillful thoughts or focuses feel kind of boring to the mind. the fear sounds interesting and important. so work to make the skillful thoughts or breath or body sensation interesting.

learn how to make appreciation of skillful things we've done more interesting. can we feel more pride in our accomplishments?

if we're worrying about what someone thinks about us, if we're willing to let go of the relationship, to allow it to be over, a state of ease takes over. (same with jobs)

2. analyze the thoughts (reflect)
"If unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should ponder the disadvantages of these unskillful thoughts. like one who has become disgusted by the carcass of a snake, dog or human..."

figure out the where the thoughts will be taking the mind.
—what gets accomplishing thinking about tomorrow's appointment, job interview, etc?
—what would it be like to think this way over and over and over again?
—where have these thoughts gotten us in the past?

you can tell a thought should be ignored when:
—its saying something to you that you would never say to anyone else
—if saying something you wouldn't allow anyone else to say to you

3. ignore the thoughts (reject)
"If unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should pay these unskillful thoughts no attention whatsoever, like one who trains himself to look away from sights unworthy of his attention."

treat these thoughts like a crazy person. you don't argue with an insane person on the street, nor do you even take the thoughts seriously. but because our thoughts are generally correct, we tend to avoid them.
—this doesn't mean pushing away the insane person or thought, nor paying attention
—it means simply paying no mind, deciding that the thought isn't worthy of our attention

its important to practice ignoring thoughts, as there are times that they will be so compelling that if we don't have experience looking away, we'll be dragged hopelessly into them

—a skillful way to reject thoughts is to widen the mind to take in other senses; look around, listen to sounds arising in the present; feel the clothes touching the body, etc.

4. relaxing the underlying stress (relax)

"If unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should relax the underlying physical foundation of the thoughts, like one who is stressed out and walking quickly relaxes by walking slower, or simply standing, or sitting, or lying down."

locate the underlying parts of the body that contract or register tension during obsessive thinking, focus and relax these areas
locate the breath and find a kind of breathing that's relaxing
—tension headaches caused by

panic attacks and breathing
during panic attacks people fall into rapid (fast) and shallow (throat, not chest, not filling the lungs) breathing.
this type of breathing causes dizziness, a lack of awareness on anything else
deep diaphragmatic breathing is the opposite of rapid, shallow breathing—focus on slow, even, full breaths.
—put hand on stomach or chest and make sure each breath can be felt by the hand
—count to 10 with each exhale

5. physically constrain (remove)
"If unskillful thoughts continue to arise, with teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, one should beat down and destroy the unskillful parts of the mind with the skillful parts"

—if the other method is relaxing the body, this in essence is substituting awareness of the thought by clenching the body, by creating pressure or tension in an area that will redirect our attention away from the obsessive thoughts.
—to be used as a last resort, after the first four methods have failed. Generally this method is used to avert one's impulse to cause harm.


  1. Thank You,no other words need to be said.


  2. Great advice
    Love the buddhist quote at the end ;)

  3. Thanks, it's a quite usefull and helpful article!

  4. Very useful explanation of this method. Would be helfpul to know a specific daily practice for increasing the skill of using these methods so that they have more power when the severe cravings arise.


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