Learn to control negative thoughts with cognitive psychology therapy techniques, Part 3

This is the last part in a series on stopping negative thoughts. Please find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

In this post, I will discuss techniques from Cognitive Psychology, which crosses over with the final level of the Buddhist Sutra. Then, as a bonus, a final level that overtakes all the previous ones.

Let’s get started.

The Fifth Level – Beating down the bad mind with the good mind

This final level is only in the most extreme of cases. I’ve tried this before, without knowing what I was doing, and not knowing about the previous levels. It is, in a word, PAINFUL. Please give the previous levels a good effort before coming to this one.

At this level, many techniques from modern cognitive psychology also come into play, so we’ll discuss them both in the one go.

What is this level about? The beating down and destruction of every unwanted thought that comes into your mind. The Buddha compares this to a big strong man putting a beat-down on a weaker man. Think of a young Mike Tyson beating down Justin Timberlake. (Oh, let me just enjoy that mental image a little bit more…)

Okay, I’m back. This level is difficult on two parts. First is training your mental muscles. Your mind has been running around without your control for most of your life, and you’re going to need a lot of mental strength to hold it down. How do you build up this muscle then? Meditation.

The Beat down

Next comes the beating. Here are a few techniques from cognitive psychology:

  1. The Howitzer Mantra. In essence, every time you catch any thoughts you don’t want, interrupt it with a prepared mantra. The howitzer portion of the name means that your mantra has to be forceful.Find a mantra that feels right for you. Here are a few suggestions “Stop!”, “Enough!”, “Silence!”, or “Shut the F*** UP!”Many texts say there is nothing wrong with cursing, although I believe being violent towards your thoughts is just being violent against yourself. However, the truth is different for everyone, and I urge you to find your own style. If swearing works, then swear all you want.
  2. The rubber band. Wear one around your wrist, and every time you catch yourself with a thought you don’t want, snap it. It stings a little, and you’re conditioning yourself with (mild) punishment to stop thinking negatively.

Filling the gap

Now that you’ve stopped the thoughts, there is a gap in your thinking. If you’re not careful, the negative thoughts will come rushing back in to the gap.

So what can you do?

  1. Expanding the gap. A good thing to do is to simply focus on the gap, the brief space after the thoughts have subsided. Given time, this gap will increase and you will slowly free yourself from compulsive thought.
  2. Positive affirmations. I’m not a fan of most forms of affirmation out there, but if it works for you give it a shot. Please make sure it is not repression or denial, and make sure you’re not lying to yourself. Affirm something that you know is true.For example, let’s say you think you are a bad father, and you condemn yourself continually for it. Perhaps your proof is that your two kids fight and quarrel daily. If you focus on this proof and yet affirm “I am the best father in the world”, a part of you feels like you’re lying to yourself and that actually makes things worse.What to do then? Find evidence to the contrary something that you do right as a father. Perhaps you take your children out to the movies whenever you can, and listen whenever they are upset. Affirm the truth then – “I am doing my best as a father, and can only get better.” Note that this is way more realistic than the first affirmation. Refer to your contrary evidence as proof so you don’t feel like you’re lying to yourself. I’ll expand this in the future, if anyone’s interested.
  3. Anything pleasant. Another alternative is to simply fill that gap with pleasantries, but this time it doesn’t have to be anything to do with your situation. A nice island retreat, maybe. How about Jessica Alba, Orlando Bloom, or anyone and anything that lifts your spirits? We can also return to Level One of the Sutra and drench yourself with a harmonious or loving feeling.
  4. Senses. Finally, you can simply focus your attention on something else. In Buddhism, this is simply called arriving where you are. What do I mean? Be completely where you are.Feel the wind on your face. Feel the clothes as they weigh on your skin. Feel the chair on your butt as you sit on it. Pop a breath mint in your mouth and savour the taste completely. Pretend you’ve never had a mint before, that you’ve never been in the wind before, that you’ve never sat on a chair before.

Be warned, though, that this method is slow and can drive you nuts. Many estimates place the number of thoughts we have per day at 40 to 60 thousand, and most of these are repetitive and negative. In certain conditions the percentage can be even higher. Depressed people, for example, often engage in rumination – which refers to the constant and compulsive mulling over of painful thoughts and memories.

A personal story

I remember in particular my own depression a while back. Not knowing any better, I fought my thoughts with pure force. It was especially hard, as I hadn’t purged the emotions that go with my thoughts yet. The thoughts came in constantly literally every five seconds! I was walking around constantly in mental pain – it felt like all of my 60,000 thoughts were negative and painful.

One of the worst times was during an overseas trip with my family. I was on a train with my brother, and for the whole four hours, I felt like smashing my head through the glass window and jumping out. If a thought is a drop of rain, I was in the middle of a rainstorm, and all I had to catch the drops was a little cup. On top of my depression was a huge layer of frustration at not being able to control my mind.

It took me a month of mental battle simply to get a 5% decrease. It was a 24/7 battle – instead of going out with my family while we were overseas, I stayed in the hotel and meditated all day. That’s how hard and extreme this level is. I’ve heard of people sweating and crying from the mental effort.

So, if you have to resort to this level, I cannot think of anything else that can help you. Besides purging your emotions first, I can only say: Don’t give up, and don’t get frustrated. Don’t make it any harder than it has to be don’t add another layer of pain by beating yourself up over failure.

A side-note: Remember in the first part of the series, when I said I’ll cover the Buddhist techniques and then the modern cognitive psychology techniques? Well… there isn’t much else – they’re all essentially the same. Even the previous levels were also cross-referenced in modern psychology. Just thought it was an amazing fact and wanted to share that with you. Buddhism is often called a “science of the mind” and this is proof enough for me.

The final technique

Now, allow me to break UrbanMonk.Net tradition and discuss something that I haven’t fully tested on myself. This is something that I’ve only started to grasp. I don’t know if it is something that only experienced people should try, and it could easily be misunderstood. You’ve been warned – please feel free to skip this section because I haven’t fully tested it and I can’t really explain it properly!

Here goes! Why are negative thoughts bad? It’s a deeply ingrained mental habit to label thoughts, or indeed, anything as good or bad. It’s part of our overall habit of labelling and classifying everything. We have the dualistic world view of heaven and hell, angels and arseholes, good and evil.

Why are negative thoughts bad? Why don’t we love having negative thoughts? Not in the sense that we send love to them and hope they go away, but in the sense that it’s fantastic – I love having negative thoughts. Your thoughts cause unpleasant physical sensations? I love those sensations too. Why are they unpleasant?

I discussed this briefly in The Peace of Non-Resistance, but I didn’t think to apply it to our thoughts and emotions. I’ve been experimenting for the past few days, and it’s a hard habit to break. It’s natural for me to label a memory as “bad” when it pops into my head, and that instinctively causes agitation.

Sometimes, I remember not to label the thought. “Isn’t it great, isn’t it such a lovely thought to have?” I think. I don’t do it in a fake or forced manner. I try to genuinely see the thought as great. If I do it fast enough, it doesn’t provoke an emotion. If I do get an emotion, I see that as great too.

And the thought lets go of me.

This is moving out of the world of duality (good and bad), and into the deeper, non-dualistic, perception of the world. I’m not fully qualified to write on this, so if this is something you are interested in, please read How to see Yourself As You Truly Are by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Another alternative is to head on over to Kenton W, my non-dualistic cyber-sifu.

An additional technique

Back to more scientific methods. There’s another technique that I found on the internet. Usually, once you’ve cleared out the nasty emotions involved with the negative thoughts, they intrude in your mind as a form of habit. There’s nothing to be resolved or painful about it, it’s just been there for so long that it’s hard to break. Steve Pavlina has an article on bridging your old thoughts into new positive patterns. I haven’t tried it though, and if you do try it, make sure it’s not repression for you.

What’s next?

Oooh… So much to say, so much half typed, and I still don’t know what order to present them in. I want to split them up into proper series – a series on love, a series on thoughts, a series on non-attachment, a series on the proper way to use affirmations, mindfulness. But they’re all interconnected and I don’t know which order to present them in. I guess, let what comes, come. Stay tuned!

I’d also like to end the post with a warm hello to another long-time friend and supporter of UrbanMonk.Net. John L runs disassociated.com, on the {SubSet} culture. He defines his blog as a “scratch pad where [he] can feature and review topics of interest to [him], including, but not limited to, current affairs, information technology, web design and standards, new websites and projects, music, movies, events, photography, arts, (and a little sport) and cultural and fashion trends.”