Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

8 mins read

IMG_5326The other day I heard about a study in which psychologists asked a bunch of regular people how many of their thoughts they had no control over, out of 10.

Their findings seemed quite startling, so in my own further market research I have of late been asking hundreds of people this same question.

I’ll ask you, if you don’t mind … out of 10, how many of your thoughts are in your control and how many are not? Or, put another way, how many of your thoughts do you actually want or choose to think and how many of your thoughts do you not want to think but can’t help thinking?


I don’t know what your answer is, but I have, interestingly enough, been getting the same answer as the psychologists from almost everybody else. Which is …


9 uncontrolled thoughts out of 10! Rarely has it been 8. Never has it been lower than 7. Sometimes people have said 10. Or 11!

Meditation is the antidote – it enables us to control our thoughts. So this has given me even more appreciation for the vital role of meditation in our day and age. For if this is true, and I have no reason to doubt what people are telling me, we can’t control our own mind 90% of the time. No wonder we feel bad a lot (90% of the time). No wonder we have only a 10% guarantee of happiness on any one day. And no wonder our world is such an uncontrollable mess – we are all pretty much insane.9-10-rating

Buddha analyzed that the main reason we are still suffering is because of our uncontrolled mind. We have a word for these uncontrolled thoughts – “delusions,” unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts that arise from inappropriate attention. Anxiety, anger, attachment, addiction, jealousy, self-obsession, pride, and so on rule the roost. They dominate and manipulate us all day, well at least 90% of the time. They are our worst enemies — our only enemies when it comes down to it. We have to gain control over these delusions or they will continue to control us, till kingdom come, every single day.

The devastating knock-on effects of uncontrolled thoughts

Yes, the world is getting crazier, if you ask me. Nationalism is on the rise in many countries. Hatred for “others” seems to be increasing exponentially, not just in the US, but in Central and South America, and all over Europe. These last 34 days leading up to a potentially no-deal Brexit feel to me like watching a slow-motion train wreck that we could stop but for some reason won’t. Meanwhile one fifth of the world’s children are living in a conflict zone, traumatized; and way too many children are starving. And don’t get me started on our behavior towards animals.

Where do these bad actions and their ensuing problems really stem from? Is it not from anger, hatred, intolerance, greed, selfishness, confusion, apathy? Are these not the real problems that we need to fix? Corrupt politics and so on are the conditions arising from these delusions, not the root cause. When we don’t control our thoughts, they control peace

The great Indian master and founder of the Kadampa tradition, Venerable Atisha, said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Try as we might to cure the world’s problems and sort everyone else out, and as important as that work and goal undoubtedly is, we can only make a deep and lasting difference if we are sorting out our own thoughts at the same time.

Below the mess

We are not crazy at heart though. At heart, below all this mess, we are amazing. We all have an indestructible potential for perfect concentration, mental mastery, peace, love, wisdom, and endless bliss. And we need to learn to pay attention to this, learn to identify with it, so that we can realize it. Our uncontrolled thoughts are still just thoughts – we can learn to let them go and think instead the thoughts we want to think.

And what would those be, as a matter of interest? Probably happy ones, loving ones, helpful ones, creative ones, etc. Buddha has a lot of ideas for positive and wise thoughts we can develop, comprising the entire path to enlightenment.

Mastering our own mind, we master our life and we master our future. With mindfulness and concentration, and indeed the whole path of training the mind in compassion and wisdom, we can learn how to master 2 thoughts out of 10, then 3, then 4 … all the way to 10/10. True mental freedom!

We have our work cut out

And I would submit that there is no time to waste. Distraction and intrusive thoughts are only getting worse. If you are reading this, you are probably older than 0 to 6 years old. But bear in mind that many of this age group are right now immersed in a screen somewhere, picking up the habits of distraction that will quite possibly torment them for a life time.Calvin and Hobbes

By the way, I just looked up “distraction” in the dictionary:

  1. something that serves as a diversion or entertainment
  2. an interruption; an obstacle to concentration
  3. mental turmoil or madness

Distractions can be all three at the same time, if you ask me, when driven by attachment. Our seemingly innocent diversions and entertainments can indeed be interruptions and obstacles to concentration; and our dependence on them is surely driving us to mental turmoil and madness.

Honestly, I can’t be bothered to wait for the results of the research on this intrusive technology on developing brains to come in – I will take the word of my dentist instead. She told me today that when her 4-year-old and 6-year-old nieces greet her, they run up, say “Hi Ally!”, and then immediately root about her person for her phone, “Can we do Snapchat!?!” If they are offered a toy to play with, they are uninterested, unless by playing with it they are then allowed more screen time. They won’t play board games. They are not all that interested in the great big outdoors even though they live in a veritable children’s wonderland (Colorado). They are already entirely addicted to the magic box. And in this they are just like all their friends. “Have you noticed fewer kids playing in the cul de sacs and so on?” Ally asked me. “Doesn’t it strike you as quieter outside these days?”

“All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box”

baby and technologyBy coincidence I also read The Week article about this later in the day, called “An iPad is not a parent”:

Children are living in a technologically augmented reality — not from adolescence or young adulthood, when they might be old enough to have some say in the matter, but from birth onward.


All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box after your parents press two buttons — or, more likely, without any apparent human effort at all, thanks to an infinite algorithmically generated playlist: This is an experience as familiar to them as the sound of rain.

A quick Google search reveals that kids under the age of 8 use screens for 2-3 hours a day and counting. Preteens and teens (from ages 8 to 18) an average of 7.5 hours. Adults stare into the light an average of 8.5 hours a day.

You know. We got problems.

My dentist Ally, who is very likeable and sociable by the way, told me that people don’t know how to have conversations any more, that they aren’t looking each other in the eye. And that when teenagers sit in her dentist’s chair, they are still glued to their phones. She lets them because it is their comfort zone. But when she tries to get their attention, “I’m afraid we are going to have to take five teeth out, and if you don’t reduce your sugar intake you might lose more,” they keep thumbing their video games, mumble, “Umm, okay,” and studiously avoid all eye contact.

playing outsideAnother friend told me today that at the middle school where he teaches, they now have a no-phone rule all day, and the results have been outstanding: kids are playing actual games like cards and rough and tumble, concentrating in classes, and generally seeming more content and communicative. But he says once they get to high school it won’t be possible to control their online behavior in this way.

Dentist Ally also mentioned that she is so relieved to be of the generation that can still remember a time before it was normal to be glued to a screen, spending the days of her early childhood riding her bike and hanging out with flesh & blood friends. I would like to point out that Ally was the one bemoaning what is happening to the next generation — and she is only 31! Things are changing very fast.

(Note to Kadampa Centers: we really need kids’ meditation classes.)

How can we improve this percentage?

 It looks like we have a huge problem on our hands, but luckily there are many effective ways to cure it. And rest assured that controlling our unwanted thoughts is not the same as pushing them away forcefully, entering into battle with them, suppressing them. Not the same at all. It is more about learning to take them less seriously and letting them go, gradually replacing them with their opposite wanted thoughts.

The most obvious and popular way for newcomers to start this is to learn some simple breathing meditation – and within that there are variations we can try out, some of which can be found here. Or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our mind. Or we can meditate on absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought. Prayers help too, as does dissolving enlightened beings into our heart.

And whatever method you choose, please start in your heart space, not your head. We won’t get far along the road to peace if we stay in our head, there is little space to be found there. IMG_5325-1

Through any of these methods we will experience the relaxing clarity and concentration needed to work on uprooting our uncontrolled thoughts entirely, replacing them with wonderful thoughts, so as to reclaim our sanity, our happiness, our lives, and world peace.

There are 2 further articles on meditation and technology here: Improving our focus and Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you – your insights are most welcome on this topic of how to get all our minds under control in over-stimulated times. Our collective future is at stake.

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Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

11 thoughts on “Control your thoughts or they’ll control you”

  1. This made me cry, such a beautiful piece of truth in a world that seems to have gone mad. ‘We are not crazy at heart though.’ This should be on our teeshirts, our billboards and always in our mind. Not just nationally but individually we are so confused by what happens ‘out there’ and inside our mind. Your article really gets to the centre of the problem, we think we are rational and in control but we are led by delusions to disappointment and frustration, every single time.

    We don’t have to live like this and we do have the solution.

    I am going to (skilfully I hope) say this to everyone who approaches me with their everyday problems and concerns. ‘ We are not crazy at heart though.’

    Thank you ❤️

    1. Thank you for this touching comment, Jan — I know you were talking about my article, but I want to return the compliment because I think you really have a beautiful way of bringing out Dharma meaning and making it accessible to people.

  2. Hi Luna,
    I am struck by how scary it is to be undistracted, how much courage it takes to see what I’m really doing. My self-sabotage is quite gigantic, for example, and when I have the courage to look honestly and see what I’m doing, I’m so overwhelmed. So I decide I’m going to live a better life, more productive days, etc, but then I quickly see this sabotaging tendency of mine has infected everything and I don’t know where to begin to make right. I just see that everything is very off balance. Too much work, too much this, too much that, not enough that, not enough this. It’s so overwhelming I always give up, zone out again, back to distraction land.

    I feel like I need to learn how to live in the most basic way again. Any thoughts?

  3. Thanks, once again for a timely and so very relevant post. I have the honour of leading a short course at lunch times in the 6th form college I work in as a counsellor. I will have this post on the board this week and hope that it touches the hearts of the young people who attend. Their minds are so often full of anxiety, panic attacks have become almost normal in my client work as people become haunted by what they think other people think about them (all negative) as they are glued to their social media feeds.

    I so look forward to your posts and hope that by sharing them can bring dharma wisdom and peace of mind to others.

  4. I recently edited a book about digital addiction that just came out. It’s worth knowing that “addictive design” is a highly sophisticated and intentional strategy. Marketeers have co-opted research in behavioral psychology and neuroscience and are designing platforms that literally and knowingly hack into our dopamine responses to keep us glued to the screen. Worst of all, behavioral studies indicate a 30 percent drop in empathy among 20 year olds in the past couple of decades, much of it attributed to computer use, social media and particularly the more recent development of smart phones. The good news is that this is likely to emerge this year as a HUGE public health issue. And as you suggest, there’s really only one way to fight back, and that’s mindfulness acquired through meditation.

  5. Interestingly, I believe I would have to class myself as 10 uncontrolled thoughts out of 10. But I know that is not exactly true. I feel more like 96 out of 100 is more representative. So my challenge is to move controlled thoughts from 4 in 100 to 5 in 100 and so forth. And if I see myself one of the lucky few to know virtuous actions, then what hope have people who do not have a Buddhist spiritual guide. Certainly given me much to think about.

  6. This post was thought-provoking and yet sad. Thought-provoking in that it gives the reader lots to ponder, and yet sad when you realize some of the statistics that have become predominant in our world today. I am very much looking forward to your next two promised posts on “improving our focus” and “how to use the gaps in our day.” Thank you for sharing this.

  7. If we could make an inner effort with a goal and determination to used the gaps in our busy modern life to practice meditation, and encourage the ones around us to do the same, starting with the new generation, this world could become a better place… I’m sure 👌📿
    Thank you Luna, for keeping all of us in the Kadampa Path 🙏

  8. Thank you Luna Kadampa. Another great article. I certainly regain my inner peace and control of my mind and emotions when I meditate, which I have appreciated more lately with more uncontrolled thoughts having been present. We have no time to waste. Let’s do it, learn to control our minds and bring ourselves and others more peace! I’m going to think about the possibility of kid’s classes in our area.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience of this 🙂 I don’t know which area you live in, but i’m pretty sure there’d be some happier kids around there if they have the opportunity to learn meditation. Starting young, too, is priceless.

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