About 20 years ago, I was washing dinner dishes and listening to a lecture by a spiritual teacher when he said something that made me pause. Talking about how we humans often perpetuate our own suffering, he startled me with the words “Your mind is not always your friend.”
“What?!” I exclaimed, as a former straight-A student who valued her intelligence and sharp mind.
But what this teacher actually meant is tidily summed up in one of my favorite bumper stickers, which says:
“Don’t believe everything you think.”
The number of thoughts we have per day is estimated to be upwards of 70,000, but what’s really worth noting here is how so many of them are repetitive, negative, critical and just plain unhelpful. Many are also untrue, and we really get into trouble when we latch onto those.
To the mind’s credit, it is biologically programmed to scan for danger and keep us vigilant and protected. It’s how we’ve survived as a species, and we don’t want to lose that handy facility. We want to respond to real (versus imagined) threats, keep ourselves from real (versus perceived) harm, and have good plans for handling real (versus projected) problems and crises.
The truth is that, during the course of an average day, much more is going right for us than is going wrong, which is why a focus on the negative is unwarranted. We need to challenge the mind’s tendency to make up and dwell on distressing stories before checking out the facts and considering other scenarios. I recommend the practice of questioning or “staring back” at distressing thoughts and finding truer, or equally true, and better feeling thoughts to counter them. Martin Seligman, the acknowledged father of Positive Psychology, calls this thought disputation. Here are some examples:
Painful thoughts: “Jane didn’t call me on my birthday. She doesn’t really care about me.”
Disputation: “Jane has always reached out to me on my birthday. She must be really busy.”
Painful thoughts: “My boss didn’t comment on that report I submitted. She must think it stinks.”
Disputation: “My boss has often praised my work. Maybe she hasn’t seen this report yet.”
Essentially, it’s about waking up from the trance we fall into of wallowing, obsessing and ruminating over our most painful thoughts. I’m not talking about suppressing painful emotions, which are healthy and natural responses to life’s inevitable losses, violations and disappointments. But after we allow emotions to move through and guide us to any necessary actions, it’s time to move on and tell ourselves better stories about what’s next.
I love the saying, “Worry is a misuse of the imagination,” which tells me that, after making plans to handle any looming trouble, I should focus on what I desire to happen and what greater good is still possible. In coaching we call this a solutions focus.
Byron Katie is spiritual teacher whose own mental breakdown led her to create a thought challenge process called “The Work.” Designed to liberate us from painful thoughts and facilitate greater insight and healing, it involves writing down a stressful thought (e.g. “I’ll never pay off this debt.”) and then asking the following four questions about it:
–Is it true? (“Well, it sure feels true when I look at that credit card balance.”)
–Can I absolutely know it’s true? (“Not really, because unexpected income is always possible.”)
–How do I react—what happens—when I believe that thought? (“I feel constricted, angry, hopeless and desperate, which doesn’t support creativity or positive action.”)
–Who (How) would I be without this thought? (“Hmmm…probably calmer and more inspired to try new business ideas, make new contacts and be open to better fortune.”)
When I practice Seligman’s and Katie’s methods, I catch and dispute my worst thoughts before they spin out of control. This gives me access to inner resources, including creativity and wisdom. If there are actions to take and remedies to create for solving problems, I’m then prepared to take them and make them. I can then use my beautiful mind to ask, “What’s right?” and “What else is possible?” instead of “What’s wrong?” as the process of Appreciative Inquiry recommends. This builds on what’s working and cultivates optimism and energy for making choices that serve my greater good.
Now firmly in midlife, I can honestly say that this practice has changed my life for the better. If you’d like to try some Appreciative Inquiry, you can do so here right now.
Here’s to your beautiful mind. May you use it for good.