Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts

From tailgaters and office bullies to politicians with punchable faces and cheating ex-lovers, our minds exact revenge in brutal, outrageous, and ultimately imaginary terms. By the time we calm down to center our thoughts, we have already started beating ourselves up for being unskillful, vengeful monsters. Except, we aren’t. We are human beings.


By Kellie Schorr

It is a pretty day for her long drive home.

Sun setting over the hills, trees shimmering in the autumn breeze as smooth jazz plays on the car radio. Life is beautiful. Suddenly, there’s a car in her backseat!

Well, not exactly in the backseat, but following so close to her back bumper, she can smell the onion rings he had for lunch. She turns off the radio to focus on the road and speeds up. He’s still back there, pushing, surging, breathing down her neck. She checks the speedometer. Already 10 MPH over the limit and climbing. He’s bearing down, just a matter of inches from sitting in her lap. She grips the wheel and with a ragged breath takes her foot off the gas.

‘Go ahead and hit me!” She snarls, challenging her impermanence in a moment of pure frustration.

He backs off for a second, changes lanes, and zooms past her, slowing down just enough to share that he has one very special finger and she is tempted to show him that she has one too, but can’t seem to unclench her shaking hands from the wheel. She watches as he barrels up to the next car, menacing another motorist until he disappears in the angry red horizon.

Gazing down the highway, her imagination projects flashing red lights in the distance. In her head he’s been pulled over by the biggest, meanest, patrolman on the planet with a ticket book the size of The Goldfinch. The driver is cited for every violation ever: broken headlight, expired inspection sticker, reckless driving, highway bullying, excessive speeding, illegal tinting, overdue library books, stepping on sidewalk cracks—it’s all in there.

She pretends to see him in bankruptcy court unable to pay the fine, or maybe divorce court. Who wants to be married to a guy who drives like that? No matter what happens, he’ll suffer. Over and over in her mind, he will suffer. It’s all so satisfying.

Later, she’ll sit on her cushion and ponder. Where was her practice, her equanimity, or her compassion?  What good is studying The Four Immeasurables if you can’t handle a tailgater without conjuring a fiery death or sea of tears? Her usually gentle nightly practice becomes a game of “Who’s a bad Buddhist? I am!”

Revenge fantasies. We may not like them. We may not admit to them. We all have them.

From tailgaters and office bullies to politicians with punchable faces and cheating ex-lovers, our minds exact revenge in brutal, outrageous, and ultimately imaginary terms. By the time we calm down to center our thoughts, we have already started beating ourselves up for being unskillful, vengeful monsters. Except, we aren’t. We are human beings.

Intrusive thoughts and random, unsavory images come into everyone’s awareness. That’s the price we pay for having a brain. It’s not about us. It’s not “who we really are.”  It’s a physiological impulse designed to help us handle things like powerlessness and fear. Those images don’t mean we are “sick”—they mean we are trying to be healthy.

What do you do when the wheel of life momentarily becomes dark cyclone of cascading brutality running through your thoughts? Stop identifying solely with your mind.

Contrary to the popular belief of life coaches and meme-based motivators, you are not what you think. Thoughts arise and disappear on a regular basis as our consciousness tries with desperation to filter and file them into some kind of sense. Alas, not to be.

If you have ever tried to meditate you already know your mind is a deranged water sprinkler spewing random thoughts all over the place, even though you had it set in a pre-determined pattern. Stop to watch a passing cloud and BAM—vivid barbaric scenarios splash you right in the face and drip all over your shiny shoes and spiritual expectations.

Thoughts, particularly intrusive ones, don’t have a monopoly on your being. You are a whole person, with a range of expressions to draw from. Equally important as your cognition are feelings, experiences, intentions and muscle memory. Don’t reduce yourself to a single, fleeting moment of imaginary comeuppance.

To balance your thoughts with your heart and your practice remember the three A’s.

Allow, don’t resist: The more you fight intrusive thoughts, the more energy you feed them. These thoughts are fleeting. Let them pass through your mind naturally and soon another thought will appear. The gift of an open mind is the ability to allow things to come—and go.

Accept, don’t judge:  When you have one of those stark, fantasy-laden, or off-the-chain thoughts that shock you, accept it as your mind’s survival mechanism kicking in. You’re not a bad Buddhist, mom, or friend. You’re just working through something.

Affirm, don’t demean: Mentally express a sense of value in your ability to self-resolve your complex fears or feelings. Experience wonder at the creativity or uniqueness of the thought, and be willing to chuckle at its outlandish elements. Pay attention to anything it can teach you, then watch it fade away.

Respond to intrusive thoughts the same way you would if your cat brought you a dead mouse. You might be horrified, but you also realize the cat was hunting to honor you with a present of survival. Instead of shouting or shaming, gently appreciate your cat’s devotion, then quietly scoop up the carnage and discard it.

There are softer, better moments already on the way.


(Author’s Note:  There is a difference between common intrusive thoughts/revenge fantasies and violent ideations that are a symptom of an encroaching mental illness.  If your thoughts are entirely out of your control or lead to depression, isolation, self-harm, or violence, reach out immediately for professional care.)


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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