6 Tips On Mastering Our Thoughts

healthy living mindfulness Dec 11, 2020

By Rabbi Amichai Cohen

Do your rampant thoughts seem to be taking on a life of their own? 

There is a Chassidic tale about a man who went to the Maggid of Mezritch and told him that his thoughts were overtaking him, seeking advice on how to master his thoughts. 

The holy Rabbi sent him to a disciple of his in a particular town. When the man arrived in town, it was raining, and upon spotting the house, he briskly approached the door with loud knocks. A man inside asked who it was. The man answered, “It is I, Yankel.” No answer...

Yankel knocked again, this time louder. “Let me in, it’s raining,” Yankel cried out. No answer again. The knocking proceeded for some time until the owner opened the door, welcoming Yankel into his home. “Why didn’t you let me in the first time I knocked?”

The host said, “One does not have to open the door to anyone who knocks.” 

With that response, Yankel understood why the Rebbe sent him all the way to this town; to learn that just because a thought is knocking on his mind’s door does not mean that he had to let that thought in. We have the ability to open and close the door of our minds and to shift from being in the passenger seat to the driver's seat. 

The Alter Rebbe, in his seminal work the Tanya, describes how our two souls are at war with each other. Our G-dly-Divine soul seeks to connect to everyone and everything within creation altruistically. 

In contrast, the animal soul, fueled by an animalistic survival instinct, seeks pleasure, defined very much by its ego and its obsessive need to control and win in all situations. 

How can we be expected to have control over and bring harmony to these two opposing forces?

The answer lies in what the Friedeker Rebbe called the intellectual soul and what Kabbalah calls the witness.


What is the intellectual soul?

To put things in perspective, the intellectual soul is akin to the power of choice. In his monumental book “Man’s Search For Meaning,” Victor Frankl assessed that what differentiated people’s experience in the holocaust was their ability to choose between seeing the cup half empty or half full. 

Within the power of choice lies our very essential freedom. Along with our ability to choose comes our co-designing our destiny. The choice between right and wrong is the difference between life and death. 


What is the witness?

The witness is the part of our mind, our meta consciousness, which witnesses all situations, including challenging situations, as events rather than punishments. 

Our witnessing mind views the events that life sends us. Of course, the witness is not the one who is living life, therefore, one of the sides, the G-dly soul or the animal soul, will benefit and get its way. The role of the witness is to give over unbiased messages, which are picked up by the two opposing souls. 

Connecting to the idea of the witness, the word for Shema contains the Hebrew letters דע, meaning know, or witness when spelled the other way.

In other words, our witness/intellectual mind sends an unbiased signal to both sides and souls within each of us. The loftiness of the G-dly soul usually wins because of its genuine spiritual connection.

The choice is made when our witnessing mind is aware that it can be rewarded and absorb way more than what the immediate quick response would yield and benefit the animal soul. However, for the G-dly soul to win this battle, there must be a moment of delay in our response, stopping us from acting, or reacting, impulsively.


What are a few tips for controlling our automatic responses to various situations? 

  1. Many people are aware of the “count to ten” technique, often used to teach children to delay their response to a situation for 10 seconds. 
  2. The Talmud says to look away from a situation and virtually “walk away.” Very often, when we are not in the midst of a turbulent crisis, we can affect a shift of mind and perspective simply by distancing ourselves from it.
  3. The Talmud also says to “be silent.” When we take the time to answer and not react impulsively, we take a moment to regroup our thoughts. 
  4. Breathe. Do you know that we are massaging our parasympathetic nervous system when we breathe correctly, releasing anxiety and stress? The word for breath in Hebrew is Neshima. The name for a soul in Hebrew is Neshama. When we breathe correctly, we instill calm and clarity within our body, making us more agile to confront situations with newfound vigor.
  5. Divert your mind and witness the situation instead of being a victim of it. In effect, we can choose to be mindful that the situation that is unfolding is nothing more than facts that are presenting themselves. The distance and necessary coldness of the intellectual mind can then make a proper conclusion about how to react to the event and master the situation. 
  6. Tanya provides a visualization of pushing away thoughts with” two hands”. To conjure up the image of the thought in the mind and visualize using two hands to push away the thought. 


In life, we are often faced with situations, big and small, that require our response. Here we have gained many tools to help us in responding to these situations in the most conducive way for us, to help us remain connected to the highest selves in our thoughts, speech, and actions.