People are often worried about, or even fear, their own negative thoughts and feelings. Regret, anger, or self-condemnation about sad events or failures in the past, dissatisfaction in the present, and anxiety or fear for possible events in the future comes about compulsively in our consciousness and makes us suffer. It can be said that our own superb memory, imagination, and thinking can give us suffering.
When we face unpleasant thoughts and feelings, we try to forget or get rid of those thoughts and feelings. This attitude is the usual way of intellectual thinking. Our mind, or the ego, is conditioned to try to do something and control things the way it desires.
However, this attitude can strengthen those negative thoughts and feelings against our will. The thoughts and feelings can become even more obsessive and compulsive, and predominant in our consciousness. This is because the related brain circuits receive additional energy when we keep paying attention and by trying to do something to affect them. As a result, those thoughts and feelings come up in our consciousness even easier. Our mind becomes preoccupied with them. We are no longer our masters. Instead, the compulsive thoughts and feelings we have formed in our mind can become our master and enslave us. In order to decrease the energy of the related circuits we need to let those thoughts and feelings go. This is what I call ”the wisdom of letting go”.
In addition, we should pay attention to other things. When we don’t give attention to or interfere with brain circuits, their energy is reduced by the other circuits which are being given additional attention.
Some types of meditation urge us to do nothing about what’s going on in our body and mind. We just observe those occurrences like we see clouds going through the sky. In other words, we observe happenings in the consciousness as if they are natural phenomena, not “good or bad”. If we don’t try to interfere with them in any way, their energy diminishes. That means that we have changed from a thinker or a doer into an observer. When thoughts and feelings are constantly seen equanimously, that is to say, gradually seen without judgment, it becomes harder for them to arise into the superficial consciousness.
Eventually, they will only arise as simple memories and not be charged with emotional energy. They will no longer have the power to trouble you. In this way, attachments can dissolve and the mind is purified.
Mindfulness or Vipassana meditation can help us to become able to view compulsive thoughts and feelings like we view the clouds in the sky. If we maintain mindfulness of a specific neutral sensation, while we leave negative thoughts and feelings alone, the neutral sensation deprives them of energy. They become weak and sometimes go out of consciousness. We can see them as they are from the outside, so to speak, by using that specific neutral sensation as a foothold. We can become an observer instead of a thinker.
There is a mental therapy for OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) that was created in the 1930s by a Japanese psychiatrist, Dr. Shoma Morita (1874-1938). Morita therapy doesn’t strive to reduce symptoms as most therapies do. For example, a patient who had the obsessive-compulsive fear of his own death would be urged to go about doing the things that were necessary in his ordinary life, leaving his fear alone. This meant that he would not be trying to do anything to get rid of his fear. In one case, an elderly man who had been enslaved by an incurable ringing in his ears began to carve Buddha statutes. When he was engrossed in carving, the ringing in his ears was driven away to the corner of his consciousness.
Hospitalized patients were guided personally about how to leave their attachments alone. At first, they were provided with some simple tasks and encouraged to concentrate on them regardless of their compulsive thinking. By doing so, the compulsive thinking was gradually taken over by those tasks. The tasks gradually became more complicated and at the end of treatment they were able to go back to their ordinary lives.
However, most OCD sufferers want a method or a theory that will allow them to get rid of their compulsive thoughts and feelings completely. They don’t want to live with them. They create an ideal image of a clear mind and try to change the fear-ridden mind into the ideal mind. They are not aware that this attitude is actually what perpetuates their problem. This is a feature of intellectual thinking. Morita therapy proposes that intellectual thinking is certainly effective and useful for changing external circumstances. However, when it’s applied to compulsive thoughts and feelings, it can create problems, because thoughts and feelings are basically not controllable. In an odd sense, they are not even our own because they arise spontaneously.
In this therapy, complete recovery doesn’t mean that symptoms have gone away. It means that patients can live a normal life even with their symptoms. One woman said, when she had finished Morita therapy for OCD, “It is alright, even if I have to live with this suffering my whole life.”
When patients stop trying to get rid of fear and pay more attention to the things in their lives that are necessary, their minds begin to move to external things and the mental energy that has been directed to their unwanted thought patterns gradually directs to other objects.
Once we understand that unwanted thoughts and feelings are not under our control, we can leave it the way it is. We can live with discomfort the way it is. Just let it go the way it goes. If we don’t actively try to get rid of the unwanted thoughts and feelings, other things will naturally take over and the discomfort naturally disappears. If it comes again, we let it come.
Ultimately, when we understand that there is nothing that needs to be removed, we don’t worry about anything. Everything feels alright the way it is. Paradoxically, when we don’t wish for calmness we become peaceful and calm. Then, whatever is needed naturally appears and works in our minds.
Co-existing with unwanted thoughts and feelings without any interference is a key point of transcending the ego. We need to just observe them, knowing that we can’t do anything about them. They come and go on their own terms. We need to just observe those feelings and thoughts without the intention to do anything about them. Then, there is no ego at work. Our thoughts and feelings may even feel like they don’t belong to us. We instead feel, “I am here and aware of them.” Indian traditional teachings say that this “I”, more precisely “this awareness,” is none other than our real self.
Ken Yagi was a successful Japanese businessman who inquired deeply into life in his later years. He was invited to retreat at our Woodhaven retreat house on the California Central Coast by our friend, Reiko Hayashi, also from Japan. He had many dialogues with Ms. Dantes at Woodhaven, and she helped him with the book he was writing in English, entitled “The Wisdom of Letting Go”. Mr. Yagi was a kind and thoughtful man who was very generous in supporting the Center for Holistic Living. Sadly, he passed away last summer in Japan. Although he never published his book, before passing he had sent us a chapter for us to publish on our website. We are honored to present that chapter above.