Gladden the Mind: Four Ways to Practice with Negative Thinking
Knowing how to gladden the mind is an important part of a happy life. The Buddha included it as the 10th of the 16 exercises in the Anapanasati Sutta, The Discourse of the Full Awareness of Breathing, one of the most widely taught discourses in the Pali canon. If you’ve ever found yourself caught in anxious or depressive thinking, you’ll surely know how painful it is. Yet despite the discomfort negative thoughts bring us, it can be challenging to change them. Let’s look at practical ways one can focus a mindfulness practice on gladdening the mind and common pitfalls to watch out for.
Use gatha verses
In the Plum Village tradition of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, we work with gathas—short verses that one recites silently while doing simple tasks like washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, and even turning on the computer. For example, we recite this gatha upon waking in the morning:
Waking up this morning, I smile.
24 brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment and
to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.*
While gathas are presented as a neutral tool to keep the mind present to mundane tasks, I have found that they easily take me from mindful awareness into gratitude, which quickly gladdens the mind. Little by little, the mind gets used to seeing what is going well and the simple things that are beautiful or enjoyable. The verses provide a specific focus for the mind, but the idea works even without memorizing anything. Sometimes I simply pause as I pick up my bowl, step out the door, or turn on the car to bring awareness to my breathing and smile in gratitude for being alive. Just a few seconds can be enough to bring me to a positive state of mind. Over time, this becomes a powerful training in shifting to the positive, especially when wandering in a neutral state of awareness. As Benedictine monk and author of Gratefulness, Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “If you think it’s happiness that makes you grateful, think again. It's gratefulness that makes you happy.”**
Note the thoughts
The method of noting what arises by silently noting it (e.g., “thinking,” “distraction,” “emotion,” etc.) can be very helpful for focusing and calming the mind in sitting meditation, as taught by a number of teachers in the Theravada tradition. But noting can be used at any time of the day or night. If I catch myself in thoughts of anger or judgement, simply noting silently, “anger,” or “judging” can quickly turn my attention from being caught in negative thoughts to exploring them. Once curious, the negative thoughts lessen almost instantly. It’s important to be very spacious in the noting, avoiding blame for the negative thoughts that have arisen. Simply note and explore the physical, mental, and emotional effects of the thought without any commentary. A long exhale while noting helps the body to calm the mind. Try this the next time you find yourself heating up with irritation and see what it does. Noting is particularly helpful for mild to moderate negative thinking.
Catch the story
If negative thinking goes unchecked, it usually turns into stories about what should have happened, what we’ll do to get out of the situation, or who is to blame. But stories can bring up more suffering than the actual situation. The richer the details and plot, the more likely we are to become more and more miserable. Author, professor, and social worker Brene Brown uses the phrase, “The story I'm making up is . . .”*** as a cue to remember to question our stories and related emotions. So if I've gone off on a long stream of thought about how rude the driver is ahead of me, I would say, silently or out loud, “The story I'm making up is that this driver is rude and ignorant.” and then continue with the same thoughts I'd been thinking. It doesn't stop the negative thoughts but rather reframes them. This too can go a long way to gladdening the mind. Catching the story is similar to the noting technique as it invites in curiosity, but it is more effective for moderate to strong negative thinking. It’s like mental aikido, diverting the story-telling energy into a healthier direction rather than trying to stop it right away, which might not be possible without repressing the thoughts.
Look to science
No one wants to remain stuck in an “un-gladdened” mind; negative thoughts tend to stick. As Rick Hanson, author of Buddha's Brain writes, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones—even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.”**** When I see that a negative thought or perception keeps coming up even though I know I don't want to repeat it, I remember the Velcro/Teflon image and say to myself that my brain is just in its Velcro mode. Knowing that humans have evolved to prioritize remembering potential dangers (also known as negativity bias) opens me to self-compassion when I can’t seem to change the pattern by willpower alone. Once I’ve accepted negative thoughts, they can start to dissolve on their own.
Understanding negativity bias also helps to explain the power of gathas and gratitude—taking the time to savor life’s sweetness and appreciate what is going well is the only way to balance out our natural bias toward negativity. Taking time to smell the roses, to watch a sunset, or to simply smile at a child is not just sentimentality. It's a deep practice. We need more positive experiences than negative ones to even come to a balanced state of mind. However, focusing on the positive to ignore the dangers and difficulties of life is not helpful. This leads to greater imbalance. As you practice and play with the negative, neutral, and positive thoughts, see if you can find where your balance point is. If you find it becoming easier to face the difficulties of your life and around you with an open heart, you can trust that you’re on your way.
When to stop
However, if you feel more stress, tension, or anxiety after practicing any of these steps, please stop. Don’t force any of this. The tendency to repress negative emotions is strong in most of us. Find ways to bring openness, playfulness, and curiosity toward negative thinking. Once I see that I am stuck in really negative thinking, I like to laugh at myself to move it out of my system. Something else might work for you, so be sure to experiment. Remember that as conditions change, so will your practice so keep it alive. Learning to gladden the mind can take many forms. Only you can know what works for you.
** Br. David Steindl-Rast: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful/transcript?language=en
**** Dr. Rick Hanson: https://www.rickhanson.net/take-in-the-good/