A Practice to Work Through Difficult Thoughts

Lisa Ernst shares a practice to offer kindness to your difficult thoughts.

Lisa Ernst
24 March 2024
Photo by Jessica Irani.

“Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” -Rilke

Last year as the lockdown wore on, I began to have recurring, dark thoughts that seemingly arose out of nowhere. They disturbed me to the point that I repeatedly tried to get rid of them through any means possible. But despite my best efforts, they persisted.

When working with difficult thoughts during mindfulness practice, we’re often encouraged to find the place in our bodies where we feel the corresponding sensations. This is very effective at helping us to stabilize our attention in the present moment. Yet, even for me after decades of practice, sometimes the mind is so busy — the feelings so challenging — that finding this balance point is difficult. Or, I may find it briefly then get caught again in the rapids.

The seemingly dark thoughts were calling me to pay attention and listen to a part of myself that felt isolated and alone.

When this happens, I’ve learned to soften my approach and offer compassion to the thoughts themselves. This may seem counterintuitive, but the practice calms me as I stop struggling. During the lockdown, I realized the seemingly dark thoughts were calling me to pay attention and listen to a part of myself that felt isolated and alone. I saw that these thoughts were linked to a traumatic time in my life when I was completely isolated and lost in depression. The Covid lockdown reactivated this sense of disconnection in a way that needed my loving attention and compassion. Soon the dark thoughts abated.

With this practice, you’re directing kind awareness toward persistent mental activity and creating a more patient relationship with yourself. Here are a few steps to support this practice:

  1. Take several conscious breaths and allow your body to settle.
  2. Intentionally bring the difficult thoughts to mind.
  3. Imagine the thoughts are like a stone sinking to the bottom of a lake. In this case, let them sink into your heart. This may take some patience, but see if you can slowly let the thoughts move into your body.
  4. Put your hand on your heart and offer some words of compassion and kindness:

I see you
I care about you
May this suffering be a kind and wise teacher
May I be filled with loving-kindness
May I be held in compassion

As you do this practice, you may discover, as I did, that these tenacious thoughts represent a part of you that longs to be seen and acknowledged. Kind awareness, even toward unwanted thoughts, goes a long way when other approaches are unworkable.

Lisa Ernst

Lisa Ernst

Lisa Ernst is a meditation teacher, artist and founder of One Dharma Nashville. In her teaching, Lisa emphasizes both transformational insight and everyday awakening as an invitation to embrace all of the path’s possibilities. Lisa has been meditating for 30 years in the Zen and Vipassana traditions. She received dharma teaching authorization through Trudy Goodman in the Thai Forest lineage of Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield, etc.