So the difference between a “benign thought” and a “malignant thought” is that the benign thought doesn’t attract significant attention and provoke the “push/pull” movement which amplifies and empowers the thought. This action of “push/pull” also engenders other thoughts such as “I shouldn’t be thinking this way,” “I wish these thoughts would stop,” which themselves engage the “push/pull” dynamic. This attention focus and “push/pull” dynamic is insidious. It happens all day long. And even if you become aware of it, it doesn’t stop. Attention is still drawn to certain thoughts which engages the “push/pull” dynamic. What can be seen though, is that if a provocative thought pops up and IS NOT engaged (i.e. it is allowed to come and go, it isn’t engaged) it simply fades. It needs the attention and the “push/pull” to live. It dies without this. But…considering how this dynamic has been happening our entire lives it is an extremely difficult thing to stop. We are taught that are thoughts are extremely important, we need to mull over our problems and come up with solutions, we need to “think positive,” etc., when in fact the “push/pull” dynamic is not necessary whatsoever. The thoughts will still come. Bad, good, indifferent. Thoughts are informational, or observational. They are phenomena that arise and then fade.
This is what Zen masters have been describing for centuries, what the Buddha himself described. Yet the wording is problematic. The wording of these teachings makes it sound as though thoughts themselves are the problem. That thinking is the issue. That thinking and thoughts need to stop. Thinking and thoughts don’t cause suffering, it’s the “push/pull” dynamic that causes the suffering. It causes a physical/mental process that focuses attention and energy on the thought, causing it to increase. And it’s a vicious cycle, self-perpetuating.
What happens during meditation is that the practicioner is advised to focus on breathing and if thoughts drift, bring them back to the breathe. This leads the practioner to believe that thinking is the issue. Thinking is wrong. Thoughts need to stop. So what happens is that a thought arises, such as “I need to get groceries, I have nothing for dinner,” then immediately another thought, “I shouldn’t be thinking!” and then attention is drawn to these and the “push/pull” dynamic engages.
It is very subtle to see that thoughts can simply arise, and then fade. Even “trigger” thoughts, such as nagging issues of money, work, health, family. It is extremely difficult not only to see this dynamic, but then to disengage the “push/pull” process by being simply a witness to a thought and not engaging it with attention. The “diamond sword” that kills thoughts is apathy, disinterest, neutrality. Although saying that it “kills thoughts” is misleading, the thought isn’t killed per se, it just simply fades of its own accord.
I would say then that meditation is to 1) see how thoughts come and go, 2) see how thoughts appear on our consciousness, are a phenomena that are observed, 3) recognize the dynamic of “trigger” or “malignant” thoughts that pull attention and engage the push/pull dynamic, 4) practice the dispassion which nullifies the thoughts.
There are many pitfalls of course. The very practice of observing the dynamic of “push/pull” and learning how to disengage in fact triggers the “push/pull.” “I shouldn’t be attached to my thoughts!” “Oh no, I’ve engaged with thoughts again, I need to be dispassionate towards them!” thoughts such as these come up, and the mechanism begins again, over and over.