When Leo Tolstoy was a mischievous young boy, there was one time after another mischief that his “grandfather told him to stand in the corner until he could stop thinking of ‘the white elephant’… He tried very hard… The harder he tried to eliminate the thought and the more he desired to be free of the thought, the stickier it became.” This is a quote from Ian McCrorie’s book “A Lifetime Doing Nothing”. You can read a separate article I wrote on it here.
I remember my mother telling me a version of this mental trick when I was a young girl. It was – try to not think about the polar bear. I was not being punished, rather I was given a lesson in the interesting ways of the human mind. It seems our mind does not differentiate between positive and negative focus, it just focuses. When I tell you not to think about the polar bear (negative) or to think about the polar bear (positive), the content of your thoughts is the same – it’s the polar bear.
The process is straightforward enough with a positive focus as the goal. However, if your goal is a negative focus, to stop thinking about something, then the harder you try to achieve that goal, the more it eludes you. There are times when the best thing we can do is to let go, simply allow the natural course to unfold itself, and observe the flow without engaging in it any more than acceptance and observation demands (deliberate non-engagement). The most pertinent examples that I can think of from experience are the situations when we feel emotional suffering.
Trying not to suffer usually only prolongs the suffering. Accepting and consciously observing it without engagement (e.g. without trying to get rid of it or trying to solve it in any way) allows the feelings to run their course and gradually subside, like a wave. Grieving comes to mind.
Since the conscious human mind doesn’t seem to be able to not focus, rather just shift focus from one topic to another, the way I understand the deliberate non-engagement practice is this: it trains the mind to exert more self-control over where it directs its focus. With the example of suffering: shifting the focus away from suffering towards the deliberate observation of suffering, which helps to recognise it as a state that comes and goes.
[If you enjoy my work and would like to read more of it, please consider becoming a Patron. For example, I wrote another small piece here about a quote from McCrorie’s book, an idea that death can be perceived as a sign of luck.]