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Tar Thought

Tar is sticky, thick, black, enveloping. It swallows, covers, suffocates. It seems that nothing beneath it can aerate or breathe.

The other day, in the midst of heavy, unrelenting thinking (not intentional or useful thinking, like problem-solving, but automatic, unconscious thinking), my mindfulness practice helped me to resurface and look in, as a viewer. I asked, "what does this kind of thinking look and feel like?" And immediately "tar thought" came to mind. In these moments, it feels like my mind is covered with black tar, and that a clearer, brighter, airier part of me is underneath and wants to come out. The swarm of thoughts bring an edginess that makes me want to jump out of my skin. From my own experience with mindfulness and meditation, and in accordance with Buddhist psychology, I understand this thing that wants to come out as Buddha nature, which is in all of us. It refers to our essential nature, which is luminous and spacious and always present, but which is hindered by mental obstructions like ignorance, attachment, and aversion.

If I have the proper level of awareness and motivation, mindfulness techniques and self-compassion serve as a balm–a true healing modality, and an act of self-care and sanity when my thoughts are driving me crazy. Before I share some techniques, it's really important to understand that the purpose of mindfulness is not to stop thinking but to become aware of thinking. Mindfulness allows us to become gentle, curious observers of our thoughts. Yes, it is true that when we begin to see how out-of-control our minds are, and realize that our thoughts are not solid, we can choose to shift our awareness to what's more real: the present moment. But the purpose is awareness itself.

Here are a few different ways you can show up for yourself in these moments. I am describing them as standalone practices, but they can also be done in succession, which is very powerful. The common denominators are awareness and self-compassion.


1. Notice that you've gotten caught up–that you and your thoughts have melded together, leaving no space for another possibility or reality. This is a very unconscious and uncomfortable place to reside, and the slightest bit of awareness can immediately bring you back to shore.

Then, drop down (out of the mind), let go of the story lines and mental chatter, and anchor your awareness somewhere else: on your inner energy field/inner body sensations, your breath, or sounds in your environment. Rest a gentle, open attention on this anchor. If thoughts arise again, that's ok, just gently and non-judgmentally return your attention to your anchor point. Continue this until you feel your mind has settled a bit.

2. Notice that you've gotten caught up. (It always starts with noticing).

Put a hand on your heart and walk yourself through the process of RAIN. RAIN is a way to reverse our habitual pattern of turning away from difficulty, and, instead, tenderly turn towards it, right on the spot.

Recognize: Recognize that you've spun out, that thinking has taken over, and that you are experiencing difficulty or unease. (Say to yourself, "I recognize that...")

Allow: Allow that this has happened, that this is where you are in this moment. If you add struggle to an already difficult situation by resisting it or feeling guilt or shame, you make things harder for yourself and become entangled with your thoughts once again. (Say to yourself, "I allow...")

Inquire/Investigate: Pay attention to what is happening in your mind, body, and heart. What thoughts are present? What body sensations are present? What emotions are present?

Non-Identification: Take a moment to acknowledge that you are not your thoughts, you are the awareness of them! This is enormously liberating. (Say to yourself, "I am not my thoughts...")

3. Notice that you've gotten caught up. (It always starts with noticing).

Find a comfortable position and take a few conscious inhalations and exhalations. Now, breathe in claustrophobic, smoky air, and breathe out light. Breathe in smoky air, and breathe out light. Repeat this breathing five times.

Next, breathe in the discomfort or difficulty ("I breathe in unconscious thinking/fear/anxiety/self-doubt") and breathe out your wish for yourself ("I breathe out wellbeing/acceptance/peace/self trust). Fill your whole body with the difficulty, and exhale your wish. Repeat this breathing five times.

Next, breathe in the discomfort or difficulty you named before, but for all beings ("I breathe in the anxiety of all beings"), and breathe out your wish for all beings ("I breathe out peace for all beings). Repeat this breathing five times.

Check in with your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations and notice what has shifted, dissolved, or even disappeared.

This beautiful practice is called Tonglen, which is Tibetan for "sending and taking. It both helps us to tenderly touch rather than avoid difficulty, and also to connect with the universality of the human experience.


Engaging in these practices is easier said than done, and even trying them out is reversing habitual patterns and showing yourself another, kinder way. You don't have to surrender to being lost at sea, stuck in tar thought, and totally at the mercy of thoughts and feelings. There is another choice, available in every moment, that can bring you back to shore.


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