When you fight, you invite a fight. But when you do not resist, you meet no resistance. When you refuse to play the game, you are out of it.
– Nisargadatta Maharaj
In part 1, we talked about how thought is automatic, habitual and designed to keep us from being killed; thus, it is often negative in nature as it scans for any potential danger in our environment. Though our circumstances have evolved and we no longer have to worry about being ambushed by a saber-toothed tiger or the enemy tribe launching a surprise attack in the middle of the night, someone has failed to tell this to the machine inside our skulls as it continues to be on high alert trying to keep us alive long enough to make it back to camp to procreate.
It’s as though that machine has to worry about something or it feels like it’s not doing its job and since there is (fortunately) a dearth of physical danger for many of us, it has (unfortunately) started to supplement its worries by scanning for potential psychological danger. So we have the age-old concerns of “what if this lump is something serious?” or “what would I do if someone broke into the house?” But, now we also have “I wonder if she took offense to what I said” or “God, that was embarrassing. I bet they could tell I was nervous.”
So, here we find ourselves, saddled with this over-active, anxious machine that is doing its job too well for our current circumstances. I can’t tell you how many people come into therapy with the goal of “I want to learn how to control my thoughts.” Thus, it’s important to readjust our expectations on what’s achievable and verify in our own experience how this attempt will lead us further into suffering.
If we put all our effort into controlling what the machine says, we will not only end up frustrated because we feel we have failed at something others can achieve, but we will exacerbate the issue as research verifies the old maxim, “that which we resist, persists.” It appears that the well-intentioned advice to “try not to think about it” or “don’t worry” literally does more harm thang good.
So where does that leave us? Maybe we don’t have to change the thoughts. Maybe they can be exactly as they are. Maybe the issue is believing everything the mind tells us as though it’s the gospel, God’s honest truth. What if we can make the most headway by changing out relationship to thought? It’s amazing, right? We are never taught as kids not to blindly believe most of what this overly anxious machine tells us! As a result, we find ourselves literally at its mercy.
Once, I went on a weekend retreat and the property manager who we will call Frank was showing me the grounds. I asked him about running on some of the trails in the nearby woods. He told me that running on those trails was a bad idea because there were “lots of huge potholes and big roots everywhere.” He said it would be very dangerous to run on them and I could easily break an ankle, then be stranded by myself in the woods. When I checked it out for myself, I was on high alert and expected to see the Grand Canyon. However, what I found was what looked like any other trail leading through the woods with the occasional small root and nary any “pothole.” I then later saw that Frank had signs posted everywhere about calling 911, and an over-abundance of fire extinguishers hanging in nearly every room of the commons area.
Then it dawned on me. Frank is an overly anxious person and I could take his precautions with a grain of salt. Actually, to ensure my emotional well-being, I NEEDED to take Frank’s precautions with a grain of salt. If I bought into everything Frank predicted, lock, stock and barrel, then I would be equally as anxious as Frank on this weekend retreat!
Frank was not a bad guy; he actually was trying to help. He was just overly anxious. Even if I tried, I couldn’t change Frank. I’m sure arguing with him or trying to convince him otherwise, would cause him to become more vocal about his concerns (“If we resist, it persists”). But, the beauty is, I didn’t need to change Frank. All I had to do was change how I related to Frank. Your mind is a Frank and we have to relate to it accordingly.
Here are a few strategies that can help:
- View the mind as a consultant, not a dictator – Have you every noticed that the mind can take both sides of an issue? My mind will try to convince me that I should eat the entire pint of chocolate peanut butter ice cream and if I listen and pig out, it will try to beat me up for doing the very thing it just convinced me to do! Isn’t that absurd? Doesn’t that show how irrational this machine can be? The mind is a consultant and is offering us suggestions. Our job is to view those suggestions in the light of what kind of person we want to be and use discretion to decide whether to obey it.
- Recognize that thoughts do not equal facts – Try a simple, silly experiment. Close your eyes and in your mind say to yourself, “I can’t raise my left hand; it’s physically impossible. I’ll never be able to do it. Besides if I did raise my left hand, my whole family will die and the world will explode.” Continue saying this while you slowly lift your left hand high above your head. This is obviously an exaggerated example of how just because the mind tells us something, that does not make it true. I guarantee, right now, there are more subtle examples of this in your life that are blind spots — thoughts that you are blindly buying as the truth that are dictating your actions and leading to suffering in some way. I know for me, I fall victim to this mechanism on a daily basis.
- Name it to tame it – There is ample research showing that simply naming emotions and thoughts reduces their impact on us. For example, test out the difference between saying to yourself, “I’m not good enough, I’m a bad person and I’ll never get better” and saying, “The mind is telling me that I’m not good enough” or “The mind is suggesting that I’m a bad person” or “The thought has arisen that I’ll never get better.” Adding those prefaces to the unpleasant thoughts reminds us in the moment that just because I think it, does not make it true. It takes thought from this highly personal fact that demands our belief and energy to an impersonal suggestion that can be taken or left depending on whether it is helpful in the moment.
- Ask, “Is this helpful, useful and needed right now?”- Here is our litmus test on which thoughts to latch onto and which ones to view as simply an anxious Frank that is trying to help but should be taken with a grain salt. The mind is like a suggestion box at a restaurant. The manager doesn’t treat all the suggestions with the same level of importance. It’s the same with us and the suggestion box that is our mind. Some suggestions, like, “What if I freak out when I give that speech in five months?” are not helpful, useful or needed right now. And again, I can’t control whether the mind goes there, but I can control how I respond to that thought. My choices are to go deeper down the rabbit hole with that worry or recognize, “Ah, there is that anxious voice again saying what if I freak out when I give that speech in five months…”
- Give the voice an actual name – Call it Frank. Call it Judy. Call in Mable. Call it the controlling voice, the dictator, the anxious voice, the bulldog. Call it whatever you want, but call it something other than “me.” By doing so, you create some distance from it and you will less often blindly fall for the crazy suggestions it puts in the suggestion box of your mind. Bonus points if you can come up with a humorous name as this will infuse some lightness and humor into the often painful commentary.
- Practice this superpower – None of us are going to accidentally learn to how play the violin. It’s the same with the skill of being able to recognize, dis-identify and gain freedom from that voice in your head. You just keep getting a little better and sometimes you’ll be caught for a whole day or a couple days or a week and then you’ll recognize, “Oh, I know what’s going on, this crazy (anxious, neurotic, controlling, fill in your blank) voice has been running the show!” So simply, pause throughout the day and just wait for the next thought to arise. Just listen to it’s demands, it’s worries, it’s judgement on how well you or others are doing. Then simply notice your choice to see it as a thought-suggestion or a fact and say “Thanks Frank, I appreciate that suggestion” and then move on into the direction of your choosing.
- Do it RIGHT NOW – Pause and recognize what the voice is saying RIGHT NOW. Literally, stop reading and just listen for it’s next comment. That’s the voice we are talking about and that inner roommate no longer has to run the show 100% of the time. It has been demoted from dictator to servant.
If your Frank is being particularly irrational these days, reach out to talk about how therapy can help you learn to relate to it in a healthier, saner way.