Let’s say, hypothetically, that you will someday set aside ten minutes to do this exercise. You can learn something and benefit just from reading this article, so if that’s all you end up doing, that’s fine too. But in the event that you do actually do the exercise, then that will give you the opportunity to test and verify the truth of the ideas presented here. Reading an article about Buddhism is called study; direct verification through personal experience is called practice. If I were to say, “This Buddhism stuff is good,” I could only stand behind that statement if it implied that Buddhism includes both study and practice. Like I said, study on its own can be beneficial, but only in the sense that sometimes the wisdom in what we read accidentally seeps through into our activities and becomes actualized. Practice is the intentional actualization of that which we study. Intentional actualization is more thorough than the accidental kind. Perhaps, if I were to attempt to define Buddhism, I might say something like, “Buddhism is the practice cultivating insight through directly studying reality.” After you read this, if you set aside ten minutes to do the exercise, then you will be studying reality.
To do the exercise, you’ll need to completely clear your schedule for a half an hour. I know, I said ten minutes, but realistically, you’ll need some time to get started. A completely clear schedule means no chores to do, no emails to write, no phone calls to make or answer. Nothing to do at all except this practice for a half an hour.
Next, you’ll need a warm, pleasant space, where you will not be interrupted. An empty house is best. If you can’t do the exercise in an empty house, you can tell the people who live with you that you cannot be interrupted for anything other than a serious emergency. This can be hard for the people and pets who live with us, so the communication needs to be firm and clear. It also helps to put pets outside and hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door knob. In any case, no interruptions at all.
Once you have the time and the space, then you need to get comfortable. For many of us, lying in bed is the most comfortable place. This works, so long as you don’t always fall asleep. Actually, falling asleep during this exercise isn’t a bad thing at all. Many of us are so tired all the time that when we take a few minutes to stop, the first thing our bodies want to do is fall asleep. If that’s the case, then a nap is probably going to be more beneficial than doing this exercise! Enjoy your nap. This exercise works best when we have enough mental and physical energy to stay awake and curious, so if you’re so tired that sleep is the best thing, then sleep will ultimately prepare you for this exercise. See the logic there? On the other hand, if you’re not so tired, then you can continue with the exercise, sitting or lying down in a very comfortable position.
The key point here is that you are genuinely comfortable. Often, we endure unnecessary physical discomfort, especially while we’re sitting down. So if you are sitting down to do this exercise, find a way to sit very comfortably. I often sit on my couch, with pillows propping me up. Other times, I sit on a meditation cushion, but I’m physically very healthy and I have a lot of experience sitting on those cushions. I can sit on them comfortably, so I do. If you can’t sit comfortably on a meditation cushion, then don’t sit on a meditation cushion to do this exercise. Instead, lay down, or prop yourself up nicely with pillows, or find a very comfortable chair.
I’m making a big fuss about this comfort business because so often I see my students nod their heads, “Yes, be comfortable, I get it,” and then promptly sit there uncomfortably during the whole exercise. When we talk about our experiences afterwards, those students inevitably say, “I couldn’t relax or concentrate very well because sitting this way is uncomfortable for me.” In one ear, and out the other. So don’t be like that. Sit comfortably, or lay down comfortably.
We’re going to start with our eyes closed, and then after a few minutes, open them. Of course, don’t close your eyes right now, but when you do this practice, you will close them in the beginning. For now, just read, and imagine yourself doing it.
When we lay down and close our eyes, inevitably we start thinking. For this exercise, we are going to get out our swords and chop thoughts. In a previous article, Whack-a-Mole, I suggested that we don’t need to smash every thought as it arises. Simply allowing everything to arise is a different, very useful exercise. This exercise is also very useful, and ultimately leads to the same place. In this exercise, we chop every thought to pieces as soon as it arises, or as soon as we notice that we’ve been thinking for a while. When a thought arises, we slice it in half. Do that for about five minutes with your eyes closed, then five more with your eyes open. That’s the practice.
Here’s the thing: when doing this practice, we need to be unconditional in our swift destruction of every thought as soon as we notice it, no matter what it is. When you set out to do this, you will notice a very strong tendency to like a particular stream of thoughts. It could be a useful kind of thinking, planning, or preparing. You could benefit by continuing with a useful thought. You could think, “Oh, I really need to put the laundry in the dryer,” and that would be a useful thought, so why chop it up? Because you’re doing a specific practice, and it gets interesting when done unconditionally.
The truth is that while we’re doing this exercise, since we’ve set aside the time, and we’re all warm and cozy in the space, and no one is going to come in to interrupt us, we have ourselves held captive. There’s nothing we can do. We are stuck, without the power to do useful things. All we can do is either think or chop thoughts. Since we’ve decided to do the exercise, why not just chop thoughts for ten minutes? It won’t really do much harm. For example, that thought about the laundry, it can come back later. It will still be there. I think we can afford to lose the usefulness of ten minutes of our lives, and just chop down every thought no matter what it is. Chop. Chop. Chop. Indiscriminately, unconditionally, every one.
When we chop a thought, we also get a feeling of letting go. There goes another one. When we chop a thought, it dissipates quickly, like a puff of steam when we drop a little bit of water into a hot pan. Then another thought arises, we slice it with our sword, and poof, it dissipates too. With each dissipation, we feel a sense of letting go. Chop. Let go. Chop. Let go.
It gets both challenging and enjoyable when a so-called important thought arises, one charged with emotion or adrenaline. “Oh!” says your body, “This is an important thought. I really want to work on this one some more…” And then you chop it down. Every time. No matter what. Taking the sword to an important thought is a delightful experience. If at first you feel hesitant, after a good chop, you’ll eagerly away your next thought with mischievous intent.
The result of this practice can be a softening of the power of thoughts, especially important ones. After some time doing this, it becomes easier to chop up those thoughts that really don’t serve us, and just let them go.