Skillful Thinking: Dealing with Unskillful Thoughts

Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (pp. 81-89)

“And what, is Right Thought?  Thought associated with renunciation, thought associated with absence of ill will, thought associated with absence of cruelty.  This is called Right Thought.”  –The Buddha

Skillful Thinking:  Mindfulness of Skillful Thinking

What do we do with all of the thoughts that are not right or skillful thoughts, particularly thoughts that seemingly won’t go away and which cause suffering?  What is an unskillful thought?  As noted in the quote from the Buddha above, unskillful thoughts are connected with attachment, ill-will and cruelty.  Another way to put it:  unwholesome thoughts arise from greed, hatred and delusion.

As Bhante G. notes:  “wisdom is not possible while we entertain these unskillful thoughts.  Also, as we let these thoughts run rampant, we reinforce them and they become even more entrenched.”

It is possible to overcome them with three tools: skillful effort, skillful mindfulness, and skillful concentration.  These are three of the steps of the Eightfold Path that we will discuss in more detail later.

Using Skillful Effort

Thoughts that won’t go away require Skillful Effort.  Skillful Effort has four parts:  preventing negative states of mind, overcoming negative states of mind, cultivating positive states of mind, and maintaining positive states of mind.   The second part, overcoming negative states of mind, pertains to our dealing with unskillful thoughts.  There are two ways we can use skillful effort:  reflect and replace.  We can reflect on the harm they cause and their impermanence.  We can replace them with positive thoughts.

Using Mindfulness

Mindfulness is defined as paying attention moment to moment to what is.  The “what is” is seeing the three characteristics (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, selfless nature) of all our thoughts.  By paying mindful attention, we practice “the seeing is the doing.”

Using Concentration

If we are to deal effective with a thought, we must concentrate on it and not be distracted by other phenomena (memories, sensations, perceptions, other thoughts).  Skillful Concentration has three characteristics:  it is wholesome, one-pointed and it functions with mindfulness.  To deal with unskillful thoughts, we adopt the one-pointed practice.

To summarize:  How do we deal with unskillful thoughts?

  • Start with determining what type of thought has arisen.  Is it skillful or unskillful? (Skillful Effort).  If unskillful, pay attention (Concentration), reflect on the harm it can cause and its impermanence (mindfulness), and replace the thought with positive thoughts.
  • If unskillful, give it brief attention to its impermanence and know that it will fall away (Mindfulness).
  • If it continues to persist, use concentration to become free of greed, hatred, and delusion by focusing on skillful thoughts such as equanimity and joy.
  • Once the mind is clear, it is possible to return to compassion and wisdom.


Compassion is the intention to relieve the suffering of others. It arises with the recognition of the universality of suffering and the realization that all living beings desire happiness.

On a more absolute (universal) level, compassion can be defined as the ability to express the non-dual truth through one’s life

Use your own suffering to cultivate compassion. Think how it affects others.  And how others suffer.  Practice loving kindness.


Look at cause.  These thoughts are often from the past.  Look inside.  Look for your role in the situation.  Look for generosity.  What can generosity do in this situation?


  • Each day contains countless opportunities to practice.  Look at your motives and see if they come from greed, hatred or delusion.
  • Reflecting on unwholesome thoughts is a critical part of meditation practice.

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