In this session we looked at how we could deal with difficult thoughts in a more skilful way. Our session leader, Alice, suggested that often the three-minute breathing space meditation is a good first step. This way we can try and watch our thoughts come in and leave without having to follow them.
Ask questions about your thoughts: “Was this an automatic thought? Does it fit with the facts of the situation? Would I have thought differently in another mood?”
Although not something that can be done within the breathing space meditation, writing thoughts on paper can help us get some perspective on them – seeing them as something separate to us and less associated with emotions.
Once we have identified something as a negative thought, the idea is to approach it with the gentleness and curiosity explored in a previous post. Still within the breathing space, try to expand your awareness to ask some questions about the thought. Some examples of the sorts of questions you might ask are:
- Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions
- Perhaps I am thinking in black and white terms
- Perhaps I am judging myself
- Perhaps I am expecting perfection or overestimating disaster
We’ve talked before about naming thoughts – you can also name a series of thoughts. Using the cinema metaphor, you can think: “Ah, here’s the ‘I’m too fat’ tape which seems to be running again.”
This helps us to stop seeing the stream of thoughts as a practical thing to take action against. Instead we see them as a tape running in the head. It will be an inconvenience until the ‘batteries run down’ or it stops of it’s own accord. This isn’t to say you won’t still feel some of the force of the thoughts – but by standing on the bank, rather than in the middle of them, you won’t get caught up in thinking they are reality.
When you identify a difficult thought you can also use the breathing space to find the impact on the body and breathe into it. Like before, gently repeat ‘it’s ok to feel like this – it’s ok to feel sad, irritable, frustrated, like a failure’. This acceptance itself changes our relationship to them and stops us getting caught up in them. They may not disappear but we are no longer being controlled by them. Our relationship with them is changed and we are not led by the rumination they cause.
As Jon Kabat-Zin said (and mentioned in the post that preceded this one, ‘It is remarkable how liberating it feels to be able to see that your thoughts are just thoughts and that they are not ‘you’ or ‘reality”. In the session Alice told us the story of a man who had had a heart attack in the past and wanted to prevent another one.
One night, he found himself washing his car at 10pm, with the floodlights on his driveway. He suddenly realised that he didn’t have to be doing it. He had a thought that he had to get his whole to do list done today and he was unable to question the truth of this. Once he better managed to recognise that the thoughts about what he had to do were just thoughts, he was able to take a step back from the distorted and stressful reality that they created.
From thoughts come actions, and from actions come all kinds of consequences. Mindfully understanding that thoughts are not facts (even the ones that say they are) helps us to see them clearly so we can choose which ones to act on and what kind of action to take.