Discernment of Good and Bad Thoughts

When we initially reflect on “what is a good thought” and “what is a bad thought”, the first ideas that arise almost inevitably harken back to whatever cultural, moral or ethical code prevails within the society of the time, whether this is based on religion or developed cultural understandings and taboos. This, however, is not the sense in which either the Dhammapada, or the Mother commenting on the Dhammapada, looks at the question of “good” or “bad” thoughts. In many cases, the dictates of the social norm in a particular society, group or religion are quite limited, and vary from one time or place to another.

A deeper understanding of “good” and “bad” thoughts comes from deep reflection on the impact upon the consciousness that results. Good thoughts are those that bring about serenity, wideness, and universality, that are uplifting and move the individual beyond the limits of the desire-soul and the ego-personality, so that consciousness can grow, and concepts such as oneness and compassion can uplift the soul. Bad thoughts are those that draw the individual in upon himself, weaken the will, breed animosity and increase the force of desire, and thereby hold the individual back in the evolutionary growth of consciousness.

In the book Commentaries on the Dhammapada, The Mother provides insight into a number of verses from this classical Buddhist text. The Dhammapada states: ” ‘He has insulted me, he has beaten me, he has humiliated me, he has robbed me.‘ Those who nourish thoughts such as these never appease their hatred.”

The Mother writes: “The Dhammapada tells us first of all that bad thoughts bring about suffering and good thoughts bring about happiness. Now it gives examples of what bad thoughts are and tells us how to avoid suffering. Here is the first example, I repeat: ‘He has insulted me, he has beaten me, he has humiliated me, he has robbed me’; and it adds: ‘Those who nourish thoughts such as these never appease their hatred.’ “

“We have begun our mental discipline, basing ourselves on the successive stages of mental development and we have seen that this discipline consists of four consecutive movements, which we have described in this way, as you surely remember: to observe, to watch over, to control and to master; and in the course of the last lesson we have learnt — I hope — to separate ourselves from our thoughts so as to be able to observe them as an attentive spectator.”

“Today we have to learn how to watch over these thoughts. First you look at them and then you watch over them. Learn to look at them as an enlightened judge so that you may distinguish between the good and the bad, between thoughts that are useful and those that are harmful, between constructive thoughts that lead to victory and defeatist thoughts which turn us away from it. It is this power of discernment that we must acquire now; that will be the subject of our meditation tonight.”

“As I have told you, the Dhammapada will give us examples, but examples are only examples. We must ourselves learn how to distinguish thoughts that are good from those that are not, and for that you must observe, as I have said, like an enlightened judge — that is to say, as impartially as possible; it is one of the most indispensable conditions.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of Mind, Unruly and Perturbing Thoughts, pp. 35-43

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