Dr. Stewart Bitkoff
Controlling Our Thoughts & Feelings
“I saw my lower self in the form of a rat. I asked, “Who are you?” It replied, “I am the destruction of the heedless, for I incite them to wickedness. I am the salvation of the friends-of-God, for if it were not for me, they would be proud of their purity and their actions. When they see me in themselves, all their pride disappears.”*
Thoughts are energy and man/woman is fundamentally a being of conscious energy; creating his/her own body, events and thoughts, moment to moment.
For most spiritual travelers this essential aspect of who they are is left out of their early education; and this ability to master thoughts operates like a magic wand. It is said, he who controls his own thoughts is master of both the upper and lower kingdom; this being the dual aspects of our soul- where both baseness and sublimity exist.
Now when groups of people think the same thought and work together to manifest a potential, the power of thought forms is magnified, and often the miraculous occurs. Consider the power potential of a group of people praying and projecting their thoughts across the planet; this eventuality has been proven by numerous scientific studies concerning distant healing. Also consider the potential effect of a nation of like-minded citizens who joined together with singleness of purpose; we in America saw this with our own Revolution and more recently the world has awakened to groups of terrorists pushing their brand of fear and fanaticism.
In the following, we examine from a spiritual perspective, the importance of controlling/mastering our thoughts and why we seemingly cannot control certain thoughts/feelings. Further how students in spiritual schools are taught to handle this problem and finally offer selected techniques to monitor and control our thoughts.
Learning In a Spiritual School
While attending a spiritual/developmental school, one of the first areas to work on is thoughts and feelings. It is pointed out to the student that thoughts and feelings help to create our individual and collective reality. There is an energy attached to consciousness and what we think and feel helps create the world around us.
Further the student is cautioned that much has to be unlearned about thought processes. Early on, many of us have been taught that certain thoughts are bad and others are good. Further, some thoughts are sinful and display a weakness in character. Thoughts/feelings can have negative consequences, however, in the mature personality thoughts/feelings are neither positive nor negative; some help us feel happy and some help us feel sad, yet thoughts themselves just are- they manifest as part of our awareness/consciousness. How we label or feel about them, how long we stay with them, and what we do with them is the tricky part; and with a little training we can redirect and more positively use our daily consciousness.
Not Having a Thought/Feeling
From our perspective, it is nearly impossible to not have certain thoughts/feelings. Thoughts of envy, hatred and anger are hardwired into us just like thoughts of love, compassion and joy. The task of the spiritual traveler is to minimize time with troubling thoughts and substitute more positive ones. Often people berate themselves for having a jealous or what they have been taught is a naughty/sexual or sinful thought; from our perspective, a more useful approach is to acknowledge these thoughts/feelings, which originate in our lower soul, and as required act on them in a healthy way or substitute more positive ones, moving forward.
Examining Our Consciousness
If someone is taking advantage, thoughts/feelings like anger can protect. Thoughts like jealousy can push us forward to work harder and try to acquire what the other person has. A thought like hatred, while serving as a protection can also serve as a call to another part of our consciousness to examine, why we hate? Was this something engineered into us by others or a personal response based upon our assessment of the situation? Sometimes we hate because the situation reminds us of a personal failing or we see it as a personal threat; our fear response is a primary, basic instinct, hardwired into us and essential to protect us from harm.
The point on examining why we have certain feelings/thoughts, from a spiritual perspective, is to understand/unravel them so we can get past them and unlock what lies beyond feelings/thoughts. For the spiritual traveler, our higher awareness lies beyond ordinary thoughts and is the goal of the journey.
One day we were sitting in our teacher’s office, who was a physician, and were interrupted by a Nurse who needed a doctor’s order signed. This young woman was very beautiful and full of life and caught all of the male student’s attention as she entered and left. The teacher observing our obvious attraction offered these words, “a beautiful flower exists so we may enjoy it,” and then continued with the lesson.
Nothing further was said about our lower (sexual) thoughts/feelings; it was a matter of reaction to a natural response. Life is filled with moments like this- a beautiful women passes by or a handsome man enters the room. It is natural to pay attention- for the spiritual traveler the task is not to get weighed down by this natural instinctual reaction. Honor it and move forward.
In some traditions, travelers are taught this reaction is a sin and must obliterate this thought totally from consciousness.
In other traditions, travelers are taught they are human and the lower soul has a function. It is like a dog that barks, trying to communicate. Often unnecessary energy is wasted in fighting a thought instead of merely substituting another- prayers and focus words are most helpful in these situations.
In working with thoughts/feelings, we were taught moderation. If the lower soul wants something and this will not cause harm to another, like a dog, sometimes to quiet it down you need to throw the dog a bone. For example, if you want and need a new car and this purchase will not strain your budget or take away from your family, what is the harm in the purchase? Instead of thinking excessively about this purchase, or trying unsuccessfully to remove it from your mind, treat yourself, buy the car and do it in the Name of the Light.
Friction Between Lower/ Higher Soul
The lower soul is the origin of our baser thoughts and feelings. This part has an important function to serve and is most concerned with self-preservation. It is looking out for self and many of the feelings/thoughts have been present since we were hunters struggling to survive. This is the part that wants to win, and is jealous when someone has something we want or need.
The spiritual traveler seeks to balance the needs of the lower soul with the needs of the higher. In this journey we are many things and it is often impossible to obliterate parts of our nature. We may learn to tame them, but they are always ready to rear their head. That is why we have been given exercises, holy books and spiritual devices to tame the lower soul; and over time, with Grace and following a spiritual Path, the Higher Soul transmutes the lower.
Switching Your Attention
For the spiritual traveler there are many devices, spiritual exercises and prayers that can be used to switch attention from troubling thoughts and feelings. In the mature personality, one that is relatively free of psychopathology, with a little hard work/training we can teach ourselves to focus on the Higher. It is our view that it is much easier to switch attention away from a troubling thought than to obliterate or not have it. Not having certain thoughts occurs through Grace and Divine Mercy.
When a troubling thought occurs, take 3 deep breaths, and try one of these substitution thoughts or actions; because we all are different one may work better for you than another. After a little practice you will be surprised at the results.
• Substitute Thought. Repeat the Name of God/Light, over and over. With Reverence and feeling repeat the Higher Name over and over until the lower thought recedes.
• Substitute Action. Get-up and call someone on the phone and see how they are doing.
• Get up and do something for another person. Cook them a meal. Tell them a joke. Inquire about their day.
• Stop what you are doing and give a donation to your favorite charity.
• Similarly, hug you wife/husband/child/friend/significant other. Tell them you love them.
• If a troubling thought persists say a short prayer and ask Universe/Light to free you from the persistent thought. Then get-up and do something for someone else.
Monitoring Your Thoughts
For those of you who wish to try another or additional approach to the substitution technique described above, try the thought/feeling monitoring exercise described below. This is one of the first exercises we were given in the spiritual school. Over a period of time, both techniques will work together and become a regular part of your day.
Monitoring Exercise: At the end of the day, after you have taken care of your chores select a quiet, comfortable place to review your thoughts. Before beginning this review, you may wish to take a long, hot, relaxing shower to wash away the day’s events.
Next in your quiet place, sit down and relax: take several deep breaths, very slowly. Make sure you have a pen/pencil and blank sheet of paper handy. Sit quietly for approximately 30 seconds and begin to think about the day’s events and people encountered. As you recall things that occurred, write down (2) things/people/occurrences that troubled you. Write down your thoughts, feelings and reactions.
Next write down and list (2) things/people/occurrences you enjoyed. Also, in writing, indicate your reactions and why they were pleasing.
Finally for part #1- troubling items, indicate in writing how if given another opportunity you would change or modify the situation or your reaction. Slowly repeat your corrective action to yourself, twice. Repeat entire exercise for three days.
How This Exercise Will Help. By practicing this activity you will begin to recognize troubling thoughts that occur during the course of your day. After a time, you will notice that some thoughts/situations repeat themselves and are potentially destructive to your mood and well-being. Also by practicing this exercise, you will have identified thoughts that are pleasing and may be substituted, when something unpleasant happens. A suggestion- make your substitution thoughts, ideas, words as simple as possible. Here the fewer words the better. Hence a mantra or substitution phrase is usually very short; the best ones being limited to one word.
“Continuous attention to God (remembrance) produces the gradual transmutation of the attributes of the lower self into the Attributes of God.”*
Right Time, Right Place & Right People
There is a traditional story, which I am changing around a bit to fit our present discussion, about the search for Higher Knowledge; hopefully this short piece will help put some of this material about monitoring thoughts in perspective.
Higher Knowledge is like a treasure that has been hidden in an old rock wall. Ages ago it was buried for your use when you became of age, by an ancestral benefactor, and is your birthright. On their way to work daily, all kinds of people walk on the road alongside this wall, coming within feet of this ancient treasure; they have no idea what lies buried nearby. Somehow this wall has withstood the ravages of time and builders; the treasure remains safely hidden. Waiting for you to claim it.
In our story, the road represents the events in our life. The wall our ordinary thoughts and feelings; and the buried treasure- Higher Knowledge- spiritual awareness.
To find the treasure, what is required is someone (Guide) who knows where the treasure is buried, and can pass this information on to the spiritual traveler.
For the traveler, or rightful heir, what is required is termed purity of heart; a desire to use this treasure in the most beneficial way for self and others.
Sadly, few are the travelers and few are the guides who meet these qualifications.
So the treasure remains hidden, buried waiting for you to claim your birthright.
To begin, I have provided map and tools.
*Hujwiri and Nurbakhsh quotes taken from James Fadiman & Robert Frager, Essential Sufism, Harper: San Francisco, Chapter 4- pages 67, 71, 1997.