We can exercise five times a week. We can watch what we eat, fruits and veggies, no junk food, no high fructose corn syrup, no aspartame. We can carefully discern how to spend our money—good charities, fun vacations, quality presents and products. We can read reviews and carefully look at labels before buying anything (I think I did more research on my last pair of shoes than on my first career choice). In fact, some of us are downright meticulous about what we put into our bodies, how we spend our time, how we live our lives. Some of us are so extremely, unbelievably, annoyingly careful about what we do…except when it comes to our thinking. We give our thoughts—our most intimate companion, the voice in our head—free reign to go wherever it wants. We won’t drink water out of a ditch, but we’ll gladly let our brain go wallow in a ditch all night. In fact, many of us (including myself for many years), think we cannot control the voice in our head. Like a new puppy that we let piss all over our apartment, we let our brains wander from lust to hate to resentment to jealousy without question. Maybe it’s time for a little mind control.
I was struck by this idea yesterday while listening to my favorite Dharma Teacher Gil Fronsdal from the Insight Meditation Center. He made a powerful point. Many people, he said, who are very disciplined about what they put in their bodies give their minds unrestricted and uninhibited access to the full field of thought. I thought, holy crap, that’s me.
In fact, we are by nature trained, even encouraged, to be discursive and explorative thinkers. It starts in school with lessons on brainstorming (I know, I teach it all the time). We are encouraged in this modern world to think of all possibilities, all options and ideas. Make lists of pros and cons. Cover all our bases. Look at both sides of the story. And we do. I do. And why not? I actually enjoy thinking. I sit for hours and ruminate, letting my mind wander like a child in a toy store, from world peace to war, from sex to saint hood, from my last meditation session to my next burger, from reasons why I’m so cool to reasons why I’m such a loser. I’m a part time schizophrenic neurotic worry-wart with a megalomaniac complex.
The bottom line is we don’t, typically, in this modern world, police our thoughts. And that, it turns out, is a problem. As the Buddha said, “With our thoughts we make our world.” And it’s true. You can see it best from the outside. We all have friends who can go through the worst week of their life and come out with something positive to say about it. Usually they’re the ones who brush the worst off and focus on the best. They’re the ones who everyone else thinks are so “lucky.” And then we have other acquaintances who would complain about winning the lottery.
Or to quote The Bard, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
As a sucker for any mystical idea, I recently got drawn into watching The Secret, a movie about a much lampooned new-agey concept called The Law of Attraction. Though the experts in the video (all with strange titles like, Metaphysical Super Guru from Galaxy #7, MSW PhD) spent way too much time talking about how to get rich by thinking about money, the basic point was quite simple: You attract what you think about. And I guess I agree, and not just on a mystical level. Often what we think about is what we see. If you only think about the rejections, failures, and problems, that is often all you will see happening, all you will remember, even when there are countless instances of success.
But how can you change your thoughts? It can be hard to do. I know when I get caught up in a dust storm of negativity it can take hours, even days, for me to notice that the undercurrent of my thinking is resentment and anger. I walk to work, and very often I’ll be almost at the door of my classroom before I realize I was stuck on one bad thought the whole time.
Changing Your Thoughts
1. The first step is always awareness. Know that you have a choice. Just as you can pick a salad over a steak and a bottle of water over a beer (though I would never advise that), you can control your thoughts. You deserve to. You do not have to be a slave to negative thoughts and feelings. Some people do believe this. They think, well, I’m just in a bad mood. I’m grumpy. I’m depressed. They accept that their thinking is in control of their higher self. This is not true. Notice your thinking. Believe that, with practice, you can change it.
2. Change the channel. It might take great effort, but when you are stuck in a pattern of negative, inappropriate, or hurtful thinking, do anything you can to change the channel. Gratitude is an excellent way to dump bad thoughts. Much research has been done that shows regular doses of gratitude, even when forced or scheduled (I will stop and be grateful at 5:15) can have long-term positive effects. Other ways to change the channel are to literally change the channel. Media surrounds us. Watch carefully how you act and feel after certain TV shows and movies. I noticed in the past few years that I’ve become more sensitive to horror movies and TV shows about murders. I noticed the same with modern literary novels which are often full of grit and tragedy. My dreams, moods, thought patterns would be different based on what media I was consuming. After years of this, it suddenly occurred to me—well, maybe my head doesn’t need that crap. I still enjoy a good drama or action film, and as I writer I love quality literary work, but I purposely avoid content that is heavy on negative or horrible imagery.
Other ways to change the channel include:
-Humor. Though I don’t like horror movies, I do watch a fair amount of adult satire and stand up comedy—I’m a sucker for a good SNL digital short;
-Exercise, which is a natural mood booster
-Talking! I find that my mind often gets stuck when there’s an idea or problem I need to get out of myself. Often I need to go see or talk to someone about something. Usually I’m afraid I’ll offend them. But once it is out, it feels much better. Remember, there are only two problems in the world—things you can do something about (then do it) and things you can’t do anything about (then why worry). See my post on this. If you can’t talk to someone about it, try saying what you are thinking out loud to yourself. Then you get to hear how stupid you sound. It might be enough to get you to drop the idea.
3. The third long-term mind control tactic, which I’ve talked about before, is, of course, meditation. In the Western world we have this mistaken notion that meditation is about sitting and thinking (“I’m going to meditate on that”), but it is really about not thinking. Meditation is mind control. True mindfulness meditation is about emptying the mind, focusing on the breath, or the body, or some other sensation that is outside of the thinking head, in order to give the mind a break. Why stop thinking? In a world plagued by over-thinking, nothing is more refreshing than a few minutes of no thought. After years of meditation, I’ve just started to recognize the benefits of being able to stop thoughts, especially negative ones, before they get trapped on the hamster wheel in my brain. I’m far from enlightened, but I’m excited by the future prospect when I can be a thought-ninja like some of the teachers I study, able to chop off a thought in mid brainwave before it clogs up the system.
Your thoughts are not you. If that were true, we would all be in big trouble, because a lot of our thoughts are trashy reruns and petty worries. In a lifetime of claiming to want world peace, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about beer and nachos. I’d hate for the world to see the breakdown of my thoughts. So don’t give your thoughts free reign. Take some time to learn to control them or change them.
Otherwise, the only difference between us and the weirdo sitting in the back of the bus mumbling to himself is that we don’t say our thoughts out loud.
GIVE UP thinking for a bit AND DIE to the idea that you are your thoughts.