Many years ago, when I was new to meditation, I asked an Indian swami how to handle the swarm of negative thoughts that crowded my mind. The swami’s answer, delivered with an eye roll and a knowing giggle, discouraged me profoundly. “In the end,” he said, “there’s nothing to do but sit quietly and watch your mind.”
In one sense, of course, he was right. But I couldn’t take his advice. In those days, my mind was so unruly that all I could do was cling to a mantra and pray for relief. In fact, I don’t know what I would have done to get some space inside my mind if my guru, Swami Muktananda, had not given a lecture one day on the true nature of thought.
The teaching came from the Shaiva Tantras, a group of sophisticated and relatively modern yogic texts that appeared in Northern India around the ninth century and remained relatively secret until about 50 years ago. The concept is simple: Everything that appears in your mind is made of consciousness, or, if you like, mind energy. Your thoughts and feelings—the difficult, negative, passionate ones as well as the peaceful and clever ones—are all made of the same subtle, invisible, highly dynamic “stuff.” Mind energy is so evanescent that it can dissolve in a moment, yet so powerful that it can create an inner reality that runs you for a lifetime. The secret revealed by the Tantric sages is that if you can recognize thoughts for what they are—if you can see that they are nothing but mind energy—they will stop troubling you.
Now on one level, this conclusion is obvious. Yet the fact is that most of us never pay attention to the substance of our thoughts. We are much too caught up in their content, which we implicitly believe is important and real. In fact, thought content is simply the passing form that thought energy happens to be taking at any given moment. There’s an energetic dance going on inside everyone’s mind, but rather than seeing the dance itself, we get caught up in its story line.
The Tantras invite us instead to turn our gaze around and investigate the energetic material inside a thought. To do this, we need to take our attention away from the content of the thought, to stop following where it leads, and instead look into the energy that the thought is made of, the actual substance of the thought itself.