So many of us weather the mind's inner storms and agitated movements by distracting it with external events—we divert our attentions to the dramas of work, world events, relationships, families, what's on television. Some of us choose the numbing effects of alcohol or other intoxicants. Still others choose to 'move a muscle, change a thought' solution: daily physical exertions that flood the brain with endorphins, buying us a little mental quiet. Relatively few choose a solution that is always available, costs nothing, exploits no one, has been proven safe and in numerous clinical studies: Meditation and mindfulness.
Perhaps we don't naturally choose to meditate at first for its a skill that takes quite a lot of practice before it provides reliable relief. Anybody can get drunk and make the struggles of a difficult day almost immediately vanish from consciousness; unfortunately the relief is only for a short duration. Meditation at first is challenging and doesn't provide the effortless results we crave. It takes patient practice to develop it to the point where we hit the cushion and can expect mental quiet to ensue. But meditation does work.
Meditation is a practice wherein we can learn how to detach from our unskillful ideations. Detachment, it should be noted, doesn't mean we must stop thinking during meditation—a commonly held misapprehension of the dhamma. The buddha's practices of yoniso manasikara (appropriate attention) and dhamma vicaya (investigation of mental phenomena) require using our meditation as a time to investigate thoughts from the outside.
The foundation of this viewing thoughts from a distance, or detachment, is achieved through the practice of anchoring our awareness on the breath and body, no matter what arises in mind. We notice how each thought effects the depth and pace of the breath, the flow of the breath energy in the body, the localization of feelings in the body associated with each thought (in my case, fear stories are accompanied by a tight stomach, anger a clenched jaw, anxiousness results in shoulders straining upwards). This focus on the body results in us having at least part of the mind outside of the thought's contents—keeping a foot out the door, so to speak.
The deep, calm breaths achieved in meditation also trips the vagus nerve of the thorax and abdomen, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, which counters the stress responses of the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system. Hence our thoughts appear with less physical tension behind them, making them easier to detach from. This is why people suffering from panic attacks are always told to breathe.
Once we developed a little distance from thoughts, its good to use our practice to learn how to tell which thoughts are helpful, and which are detrimental. So we start by developing wariness towards all the ideas that visit us. After all, they're not our thoughts. Thoughts are memes, ideas imported into our minds from other minds, via what we hear other people say, watch other people do: each mind is an imitation machine. We don't really produce anything new upstairs, we simply slap old ideas into a different phrasing and call it ours. (If you want to learn more about one theory of how the process works, find a copy of Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene.)
I tend to view my thoughts as inner door to door salespeople: each thought is trying to get me to fork over my attention and time. Much of the time they're selling something I don't really need: how I must avoid something that's inevitable and necessary, such as loss and aging, how I must cling to something that's fleeting, like physical beauty or sensual pleasures.
Once I've started to view thoughts as not my own, as visitors, I can start asking questions:
is this voice or person really offering me something in my long term best interest?
would someone who cared about me talk to me this way?
would i feel comfortable if people could hear the thought I'm thinking right now?
knowing death can occur at any time, would I be happy if this was the last thought I had?
are there any harmful intentions masquerading behind these ideas?
I've learned to deeply suspicious towards my inner Yes Men, those voices that immediately justify my every action, even when its unskillful. These are not friendly voices; how many people have met ruinous ends because they've been surrounded by enablers? And yet we all listen to these inner backslappers and brownnosers as if they have our best interests at heart. The Buddha had a different view: "If you find someone who points out your faults and encourages you to do better, your should follow that wise instructor as if they were guiding you to a hidden treasure" (Dhp. 76)."
Over time I've learned to be weary of inner judges who find other people wanting, especially since I've seen how empowering such outlooks means their ire will inevitably turn on me.
But meditation is not only seeing which thoughts are harmful; its also learning to empower thoughts that are skillful. Such thoughts build up esteem by focusing on our skillful actions, rather than through comparing us with others; wise ideas tell us when we're doing something wrong, but don't beat up on us; they propose actions that make us feel virtuous and help us see the long term results of our actions. It's important to hold onto these sources of wisdom: we can use our mediation to reflect with gratitude on the wisdom we've developed in life, and cherish the results when we follow through via acts of generosity and virtue.
Finally, once we've done the work of identifying which thoughts are in our best interest and which aren't, we can practice a little metta to cap off our efforts. Metta is the intentional development of good will in the mind; we're wishing true happiness for ourselves and others. Such thoughts are never selfish or unskillful, for true happiness comes from within, exploits no one, pollutes nothing. When we wish true peace for all beings, we're developing thoughts that cause no stress or suffering and, at the end of the day, that's what spiritual practice is all about. Making the mind and body a peaceful place for us to spend our days.