How to remove negative thoughts and tame your monkey mind, Part 1
What is the one of the biggest obstacles that you can face in achieving personal mastery?
Your mind, your thoughts. Master them, and you master yourself. Then there is little you cannot do over time. Happiness, character, external success – they all begin in the mind. As the famous saying goes – “As within, so without.”
The moment we begin paying attention to our thoughts we discover how unruly they are. We don’t really beat our heart, it beats itself. Neither do we control our thinking we are being thought. Estimates place the number of thoughts we have each day at 40 to 60 thousand, and we don’t have more than the most basic control over them. Increasing this control mental labour is often said to be the hardest work of all. The good news is; even the slightest increase is well worth it.
Before you go ahead with this, though, it might be helpful to have read The Danger of Positive Thinking. This is to make sure that your thoughts are not based in reality – something that you have to take action on. For more information on noticing our thoughts, not attaching to them, and how they influence you, have a look at What your ego is.
The Modern and The Ancient
There are many systems of controlling your thoughts. Two of the biggest I’ve come across are: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the biggest force in psychology today, and the old Buddhist methods, so I’ll cover them both in this series.
There are many similarities between the two – I’ve even heard the Buddha being called the world’s first and best Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. There are only so many ways to skin the cat, as the saying goes, and it’s natural the best techniques rise to the surface. So if you are turned off by the religious connotations, please don’t be – they’re practical. The relevant sutra, commonly translated as the Discourse on Removing Distracting Thoughts, reads like a psychology manual if you take away the flowery language.
In this sutra, the Buddha gives five techniques – arranged according to how unruly your thoughts are. I have to warn that it is easy to be overanxious – “Oh my God! My thoughts are impossible to control!” and jump to the last level, that is counterproductive and causes much anxiety. I made the same mistake, but after a few days, it turns out that a mixture of the two was good enough.
My point is: Give each level an earnest effort over a few days before you decide to move on.
The First Level Reflect on the positive counterpart
If you look closely, you’ll see that negative thoughts stem from negative emotions. They feed off each other. Negative thoughts cause negative emotions, and negative emotions cause more negative thoughts. They feed off each other in a vicious cycle.
Therefore, change one part of the cycle the emotions and the thoughts will slowly change with it. What is the positive counterpart to the emotion in your cycle? Hatred has Love. Cruelty has Compassion. Desire has Non-clinging. Agitation has Harmony.
How do we create these emotions? Drench yourself with it. Fill your body, your being, your entire consciousness with harmony. If you can, fill your mind with such thoughts too. Don’t worry if it’s hard initially. It’s normal.
Of course, there are a few other ways of interpreting this level of the Sutra. Do whatever is emotionally nurturing. Go out to nature, put on some music, pamper yourself, read a book, go for a walk, do some exercise. Get your blood circulating and your heart pumping and you’ll find it easier to step outside your head.
Now, this level is hard if your thoughts are charged with strong emotions. When I was in heavy depression, I found that this technique was a form of repression (although I could simply have been doing it wrong). Still, I recommend that you clear out as much of the negative emotions first.
I personally use this for annoying thoughts or memories. For example, I sometimes get bored with tedious work or irritated by rude clients. In that case, I take a short break, go for a walk, and drench myself with harmony before stepping back in.
The Second Level – Reflecting on the Misery
If the thoughts persist after an earnest effort at the preceding level, you should try reflecting on how much misery these thoughts are causing you.
The Buddha uses the metaphor of a well-dressed young person, who finds him or herself with the carcass of a snake around their neck. The disgust is sometimes enough to make them throw the dead animal off them. What does this mean? We know that these thoughts upset or affect us in ways we don’t want, but we never focus our attention directly on the misery.
I equate this to portions of The Work of Byron Katie. Reflect on how much misery these thoughts are causing you. Don’t just think it through, feel it. Take as much time as you need, sit there, and feel as deeply as you can how much misery and pain these thoughts cause. I cannot stress the feeling portion of it enough – I made the mistake of thinking about it too much at the start. Go as deep inside yourself as you can –let your heart answer, not your mind.
Beyond the feelings, there is also the practical level. This is where the mind comes back in. What do you do with these negative thoughts? Do you drown it in whiskey, or take it out on your children, boyfriend, or girlfriend?
Now, The Work has another question. Who are you without these thoughts? Don’t force yourself to drop the thoughts, just imagine yourself without the thought on both levels. Maybe you won’t drink as much, and the tightness in your chest, the heat in your stomach disappears. You return to a calm and peaceful feeling.
You’re letting your system know how it feels to be with and without the thoughts. Remember that everything you do or think is meant to help you in a certain way, however misguided it might be. I explained this in detail in Why do we cling to our unhappiness?
I think once your system feels the difference, not just on the intellectual level, it helps instead of hinders your quest for mental control.
These should be enough for your most of your negative thoughts. I won’t give the other levels yet, or you might want to jump ahead to the deeper levels in a fit of anxiety. I thought I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I looked at my thoughts and saw how hard they were to control, so I know how easy it is to overestimate what is probably an everyday human condition.
The next in the series will reveal the other levels of the sutra, and go into modern psychological techniques as well so subscribe to my RSS feed to keep up to date!