You CAN Choose Your Thoughts
By means of meditation, I feel that we have planted dynamite to transcend the world of confusion. So it would be good if you could practice meditation as much as you can, as much as physically and psychologically possible. You could become more clear and sane, and you could also influence the national neurosis in that way.–Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
In many ways, thoughts are even more problematic than emotions because they feel so involuntary, uncontrollable, and constant: “I can’t help what goes through my head!” Perhaps so, but we can learn which thoughts we want to pay attention to, and which ones we let drop into the waste disposal of the mind. There is a whole sector of the personal development industry devoted to positive thinking: guys like Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Anthony Robbins, and Wayne Dyer have made millions trying to teach people how to think more positively. From finding inner peace to getting rich, many self-help gurus spread the power-of-positive-thinking message.
It’s a good one, to be sure. And it is absolutely possible. But rarely is it as easy as most of these guys would have you believe. (In fact, part of the reason they’re rich is that they make happiness, wealth, and well-being sound easy to achieve, which is what people want to hear. But how many people are actually able to change their lives with these oversimplified instructions? In reality, very few. Such oversimplification of complex human motives and behaviors is one of my biggest criticisms of the self-help world–but that is another topic.)
You can change your thinking, but for most of us, it takes a concerted, committed effort. The reasons for this are pretty straightforward:
- The amount of time you’ve spent not trying to control your thoughts. You’ve been thinking since infancy, and since infancy have developed some very ingrained thought patterns. If you try to start changing your thought patterns as an adult, you are up against a literal lifetime of habit.
- The time spent practicing change is small compared to the total time spent thinking. Once you’ve decided you want to think more positively, you may read some books or visit a therapist or join a group of like-minded people for support. You may start meditating, which is one of the very best ways to change and control your thoughts. Even if you do all of the above, you’re still spending the vast majority of your day not focused on changing your thought patterns. And meanwhile, your thoughts continue at the same pace as before, which is rapid and constant. A good analogy is if you wanted to lose weight, but could spend only one or two hours a day not eating.
- Mental and emotional blocks must be dealt with to “clear the way” to more positive thinking. Everyone has blocks (here’s a recent post on this subject). Some of these blocks are conscious–for example, you may know you have a “fear of success” or that you sabotage yourself when you come close to getting what you want. But do you know why you do these things? Many blocks exist below the level of conscious awareness, and they must be addressed before much upward mobility can take place. To build a skyscraper, you have to dig a deep foundation first (here’s a great post on this topic). Not to say you must have yourself completely figured out and perfectly understood; that is not possible. But the more self-awareness you have and the better you understand your motivating principles, the better equipped you are for the long haul.
Despite these difficulties, we can teach ourselves to choose our most positive, useful, productive thoughts–with a concerted, committed effort. Here are some suggestions.
- Start with simple awareness of your thought patterns. Notice your patterns. For example, if your first thoughts tends to be negative, know that you shouldn’t put too much emphasis on them. If you avoid problem solving, make an effort to do more of it. Having a sense of how your thoughts tend to run is the beginning of gaining control over them and changing old, unhelpful habits.
- Dedicate yourself to the process. Use as many tools as you can to change your thinking: positive affirmations, reading, journaling, self-analysis, therapy, good support people, willingness to confront your demons, self-encouragement and awareness, etc. etc. It takes a lot of desire and effort to overcome a literal lifetime of bad thought habits, and it will take time. Believe that it is possible, have faith in yourself, and keep at it.
- Meditation, meditation, meditation!! Meditation–the key to mindfulness, which is just a fancy word for being present–is proven to be one of the fastest routes to personal change; many believe it is the fastest route. Meditation is really about learning how to dis-identify with your thoughts: instead of feeling caught up in them, you learn to become an objective observer of them, able to pick and choose which ones you want to respond to and how you want to respond. Developing a meditation practice will help in all areas of life, including physical health and emotional balance. You can find meditation groups without any religious affiliations, if that is an obstacle for you. Or you can just read some books and learn how to do it on your own. However you do it, just do it. You will be amazed at the difference it makes in your life.
- Patience, self-love, and self-forgiveness. Know how hard it can be to change and keep your expectations low. Change will come, but it will likely come slowly. I know this isn’t what people want to hear, but it’s the truth for almost all of us. Love yourself, forgive yourself, and keep at it.
Thought layers don’t always mean negativity. They are usually some combination of desirable and undesirable. The key isn’t to eradicate the undesirable thoughts, but to focus on the more desirable ones and practice keeping them in the foreground. This doesn’t always mean “pleasant” thoughts. Sometimes it means productive thoughts, or focused problem solving, or dealing with something unpleasant rather than avoiding it, or noticing some disowned aspect of yourself that’s been crying for attention. These aren’t all pleasant, but they are all necessary to being a critical thinker and to knowing thyself. The point is to train your mind so that thoughts become your servants rather than your masters, at least a majority of the time. That’s the best most of us can hope for.