Drying out my thought loops

They say that 90% of our thoughts are repetitive. Actually, I don’t know who “they” is, but I say that 90% of my thoughts are repetitive.

The first time I have a thought, it may be quite nice. It might be a new idea or a pleasant feeling of gratitude. It can also be not so nice, like regret over the way I’ve worded something or dread of some upcoming event.

Both of those kind of thoughts repeat, the pleasant and the unpleasant. For me, the idea thoughts are the most persistent. My brain simply adores figuring things out, and when there’s a new idea that’s not completely fleshed out, it desperately wants to fill in all the details. It will even write the code for a program in my head. And when there’s some aspect it can’t figure out, like for something beyond my current skills, it will go at it even harder. For days, weeks, months.

At first, the idea thoughts are pleasant. But as my brain hammers on them, they become tiring. Why won’t my mind let go of them?? I often imagine taking a (metaphorical) drill to my head and just emptying them out. I even painted that one day:

Funnily enough, I now have cluster headaches in precisely that spot. Hmm…

It’s hard for my brain to convince my brain not to figure things out. It’s been doing it for 30+ years now, it’s gotten quite good at it, and the skill has gotten it many places. In the competition to be the best neurons in my brain, the figure-it-out neurons have been winning for a long time.

But now I’m on to them. Now I’ve seen that they’ve taken control of my brain, and that they simply have too much control.

I’ve got a plan. I’m drying them out. I can’t prevent the thoughts from starting up in my head, but I can prevent them from going on for many minutes. I can interrupt their flow.

My technique of choice: continuous chanting. It’s been a few months since I graduated from a 4 month Human Development Training retreat, and I’ve been chanting ever since, every day, all day, for as long as my roommates can take it. Sometimes that chanting turns into singing silly songs to myself; sometimes it turns into nonsense poetry. But the technique works just the same.

You see, during that retreat, I discovered that my mind has multiple tracks. Even during continuous chanting, my mind can keep thoughts going on another track. But at least with chanting, those thoughts can’t go as far, since they don’t have as much time/space as before. There’s also increased awareness of how far they’ve gone, likely due to the cognitive overhead involved in keeping them going. Here, a technical diagram:

Some thought loops are very strong, trying to scream louder than the chant track. When that happens, it’s sometimes because a thought actually needs to be processed. I start with the most lightweight processing I can do, scribbling it on a piece of paper. If the thought still screams because it doesn’t think the paper’s good enough, I can write it down digitally. If it’s still persisting after that, then I talk over the thought with a friend. That’s often the first recourse in our society, but for me, it’s the last recourse, because talking things over can solidify thoughts more than necessary and it involves putting thoughts into other people’s heads, too.

There are other thought loops that don’t need processing; they just need a BIG interruption. These are my top 3 favorite ways of clearing my mind:

  1. The Ursonate: A rhythmic nonsense poem. You can watch my favorite verse progression, or read my post about learning it.
  2. Manjushri chant: A Tibetan mantra which can be chanted with an increasing tempo until it gets so fast that no thoughts can squeeze in. Usually a teacher leads it, but I also made a little web version for myself.
  3. Kum Nye: A form of Tibetan Yoga with slow poses. Some of the poses bring up such intense bodily feelings that they clear my mind as well. You can learn Kum Nye from Nyingma Institute or a book.

To properly use my chant-the-thoughts-away techniques, I’ve found that I also need to avoid incompatible activities. Mostly, that means avoiding listening to music or watching concerts. I’ve found that I can’t chant while listening to someone else’s audio track, but I can still think (A LOT). Therefore, no music listening for me. That’s okay, I make my own!

Now you might be wondering: is it working? Are my thoughts drying out? Yes and no. I’m noticing much less unnecessary negative thoughts, like judgments about other people or about myself. I do still have many brainstorming thoughts, but they’re not as all-consuming as before.

I’ve noticed it’s particularly important that I employ these techniques after a happening, event or conversation. In the past, I’d often get in loops of rehashing and regret, which would turn an experience negative. Now, the experience is what it is, without one aspect of it being multiplied by my mind. It’s also important to dry thoughts out while I’m working on something I find difficult, as negative self-judgments can also easily multiply and get in the way of progress. It’s all about not letting the mind make a thought bigger than it needs to be, if it needs to be there at all.

My techniques are obviously very much inspired by having spent months on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat and experimenting with everything we learned there. It’s an ancient wisdom time-tested by thousands of monks, and it has a lot to offer, even to us modern Western folks.

But your mileage may vary. Also, your mind may work completely different from mine. Or you may not have any need for these techniques.

Who knows? I do not know your mind. But I know mine much better now, and I’m going to try my best to retrain it.

Be gone, ye thoughts that ne’er cease!