Counselling Resource

Psychology, Philosophy & Real Life

Sarah Luczaj

“Just Thinking”: Escaping the Positive and the Negative

In the previous post, I had a bit of a vent against both “positive thinking” and “negative thinking”. Is the answer not to think at all? Not according to the most helpful way of living with the power of thinking that I have ever come across.

Photo by bluekdesign - //flic.kr/p/8n5bgn
Photo by bluekdesign - http://flic.kr/p/8n5bgn

Here’s a follow up from the previous post in which I had a bit of a vent against both “positive thinking” implemented in the form of affirmations and “negative thinking” as imposed automatically, all too often, by our brains. (See “Positive Affirmations for Breakfast?”.) I suggested the value of noticing and unpicking the negative thought patterns, but then what? Is the answer not to think at all?

This doesn’t sound like a great idea. Life without using our thinking skills would obviously be impossible. Taking breaks from our thoughts is easier said than done as well, although not impossible when “in the flow”, concentrating on a task which requires a certain type of consciousness or frame of mind. But as anyone who has tried to meditate, under the impression that it is about experiencing a mind empty of thoughts, or as anyone who has tossed and turned trying in vain to relax and go to sleep can attest, thinking is not only a skill that we can use as we choose to and need to. Thoughts appear quite unbidden, and then can divide and multiply, defy your own logic, lead you round and round in circles and generally rule your life, the worst case scenario probably being a full blown experience of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the kind of therapy which specialises in thoughts and how they can come to govern our experiences. But personally I find the pure emphasis on thought unsatisfactory. People, however partially and fragmentarily they can come to experience themselves, always have a physical, emotional and something we might call a spiritual dimension. Usually the fragmentation itself is a big part of the discomfort they feel. So what to do with this problem of thoughts which shape our reality in unhelpful ways?

The most helpful way of living with the power of thinking that I have ever come across is not fighting it, trying to switch it off, or impose the thoughts we want by force, but just calling it by name. I first came across this specific technique from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. I understood it this way, that the basic skill of meditation is to sit with your own mind, keep your attention on your own breathing, just being aware of it, not trying to change it in any way. Then in troop the thoughts, the good the bad and the ugly. What to do? Just label them, in as neutral way as possible, “thinking”. That’s all they are. Go back to what you were doing until the next one comes along. Don’t worry about it.

Mindful approaches to OCD and other anxiety problems also stress that labelling the panic or the obsessive thought for what it is opens up a useful space between you and that experience. But you don’t need to suffer from distressing and intrusive thoughts to find the quiet process of labelling thinking useful. It defuses a lot of internal fights, allowing you to relax, to get to sleep, to go about your life without the strain caused to your nervous system by constantly telling yourself either how hopeless or how fantastic you are.

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