There’s a meme—nearly twenty years old now—of an adorable little kitten with the simple caption “Kitten Thinks of Nothing but Murder All Day.” I laughed the first time I saw it, and I still do—partly because it seems so incongruent, but also because it points to something true. We know that these beautiful, gentle little animals have this other natural thirst. The life of a housecat doesn’t satisfy that thirst, so we don’t necessarily see it, but it’s there, all the time. So when this image pops up—and it does fairly often, even after all these years—I ask myself, what do I think about all day? What’s the thing I’m not showing, the thing that isn’t so pretty to me and wouldn’t be so pretty to you, if you knew?
What is it for you? For a lot of people, I suspect it’s in the shape of a feeling—anxiety, fear, anger, resentment, regret, sadness. A feeling that permeates our experience but is accompanied by the thought, I shouldn’t feel this way. For others, it’s more concrete: a fantasy, a memory, a what-if. It’s the narrative that never goes completely quiet. We may not see it when we’re doing our taxes or making dinner, but when we sit in meditation, it becomes obvious that it was always there, that’s it’s been right there all day, all week, all month.
I know about this not only because I have it myself, but because it’s one of the things people bring up with me the most. We experience thoughts that don't seem wise or compassionate or wholesome or evolved, and then, because we're involved in this practice that stakes so much on wisdom and compassion and clarity, we add the thought, I should not think this. I should not feel this. Something is wrong.
You may imagine that the kitten is a kind of hypocrite for acting like one thing (cute companion) but thinking another (murder). If so, you’ll turn that lens on yourself, too. Here you are—a Buddhist, practicing meditation, chanting about compassion—and then maybe you go to work and there's this person who's always annoying, and sometimes you just want to punch him in the face. So you’re failing, or Buddhism is failing; the system is broken, or you are. Right? Now you’re not just thinking these unseemly thoughts, you’re also thinking this more powerful thought about how things are so wrong—about how I’m so wrong. You may turn to teachings like the eightfold path, which speak of “right thought” and think, there must be a right thing to think. You’ll tell yourself, that in times of distress, in times of ease, when sitting in meditation, you should be thinking compassionate thoughts, generous thoughts, wise thoughts. You should be seeing through something, not just watching our own stuff rise to the top over and over again.
The encouragement I want to offer is to say, it's okay. You can decide that you're going to think “right thoughts,” but that isn't how thoughts work. I can take up, for example, the idea that I love everyone. I can say it, I can think it, I can chant it to myself. I can carry it around like a rock in my pocket and rub it. I love everyone. Really, though, I want to love everyone—I want it to be true, but as long as it isn't true, I'm not really thinking that thought. I'm trying on a thought, and that thought feels like a lie. Does this mean there's nothing to be done? No, it doesn't. It just means we have to be honest first about what it is that we're thinking, what it is that we're feeling, what it is that we're experiencing. We have to make space for that, allow for that, or else our whole lives will be spent pushing back against our own minds.
That mental work is exhausting, and it's futile, and it has nothing to do with this path. It’s like having a pain in your body, one that isn't healing and maybe never will. You can try to fight that. And in a way, it's natural to, because we think we aren't supposed to feel that way—things aren't supposed to hurt all the time. So most of us, faced with that kind of pain, whatever the cause, will spend a period resisting it, being angry at it, noticing it to the degree that it always seems just next to the center of everything else that's happening. We're talking to someone, but we're also staring at that discomfort. We're watching TV, but the discomfort is always in view. That's one way. And again, it's exhausting. The other way—less stressful, but also less intuitive—is to learn to simply notice the pain and say, oh, there's that again. There it is. It would be nice if it weren't here, but it is here. This is the middle place: not fighting, not indulging. Just allowing.
If you've attended a meditation retreat where you're sitting for multiple days, you almost certainly have had the experience of diving deep into a particular thought or memory or fantasy. You might have embraced it for a while, enjoyed it. But at some point, you probably tried to push it away and say, no, no, no—I'm on a retreat. I can't think this way. Either way, that thought ends up being at the center of your experience, possibly for days. Only Option C gives it the space to breathe: it pops up, and you say to yourself, oh, there it is. There’s that story again. I knew that was there somewhere.
There’s also an Option D, by the way. In the same way that we can notice our thoughts and just give them space, we can also take up the practice of entertaining thoughts that are new. If I try to convince myself that I love everyone without that naturally arising, I'm going to be at odds with myself. But if I carry around the thought may all beings be free from suffering, then there's nothing there to believe. Not exactly. I don't have to convince myself that I'm a different kind of person. I just have to entertain the thought of it. I can hold for a moment the feeling of aspiration behind that wish. May all beings be free from suffering—there's no lie because there's no story, just a kind of question for us to enter. This is a simple approach, time tested.
When we feel trapped by the way our mind naturally works, when we feel disappointed by our own thinking, we can learn to smile at it all. We can smile at our own desire to make it otherwise, and then we can offer up a wish to the world that no one would have that experience—including me, but not just me. Because in that offering, in that wish, is the acknowledgement that everyone else is doing the same thing, that this is what it is to be alive, to be human. Just like you, the person you meet on the street is holding a thought they do not want to hold. They're guided by a feeling they wish they could put down. Guaranteed. Every time, in every encounter, it comes back to this recognition: we are as we are, and others are as they are, and it’s all one thing. And it’s fine.
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on their podcast), a psychotherapist, and former editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.