Stop trying to control your thoughts

As someone who teaches mindfulness and meditation, one of the key motivations I hear from people who want to learn is “I want to control my thoughts.”

Other variations include “I want to stop thinking negative thoughts,” or “I want to make myself think more positive.”

Pursuing this motivation leads to a great deal of frustration — not just when it comes to mindfulness and meditation, but when it comes to general self-improvement (the amount of self-help books espousing “positive thinking” could fill a large room…if not a small library).

The frustration stems from one major drawback when it comes to trying to control your thoughts: you can’t do it.

Before this digresses into a debate over free will, I would encourage you to explore where your thoughts come from. What causes the next thought to pop into your head? Sure, sometimes a thought related to your immediate environment or the task at hand materializes and seemingly “fits” with what is happening. Other times, thoughts appear random and can range from something that happened to you in grade school to the guy that cut you off in traffic last week.

The bottom line is, thoughts come and go. Trying to control what thoughts occur when, or trying to stop certain thoughts from happening altogether, is a poor use of your time and energy.

Side note: trying NOT to think of something actually makes it more likely that you will. It’s called Ironic process theory, and refers to the psychological process whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface.

There is good news, however. If you accept that you can’t control your thoughts, you can focus your efforts on what you can do: you can cultivate awareness of them, and develop the skill of observing mind-made activity without getting caught up in it. In doing so, you learn to interrupt the processes that lead to conditioned behavior (decisions, actions, and reactions).

Through practice, you can become better at watching your thoughts as they happen (this is the essence of meditation). The first thing you will notice is there is a constant dialogue in your head — you may have caught glimpses of it before, but you probably never realized the extent of its compulsiveness. We are usually only aware of a small portion of what goes on in our minds at any given time.

Self-experiment: if you want to prove (or dis-prove) this to yourself, start a timer for 10 minutes, sit down with a pen and paper, and write down every thought you have (most people don’t make it the entire 10 minutes).

Your mind is constantly going. Thoughts pop up, they lead to feelings and emotions, and those feelings and emotions lead to actions and reactions. Quite often, this process (thought-emotion-action) is automatic. Awareness and observation, however, allow you to interrupt it.

By watching your thoughts, you can learn not to attach to them (not to get swept away by them). You can learn to see them for what they are: temporary. They come and they go, even though your mind tries to make you believe they are permanent (when you are experiencing anxiety or depression, you think it will never go away…which makes it even worse).

The same is true with feelings and emotions — you don’t have to dwell on them (or wallow in them). You don’t have to follow them down a path that culminates in you acting and reacting in a conditioned manner. You can watch emotions rise, and you can watch emotions cease. Nothing is permanent.

In short, the content of your thoughts does not matter. What matters is how you let your thoughts, and all mental activity, affect you. Thoughts are like clouds floating across the sky: instead of getting caught up in them, you let them pass. They only hold power over you if you continue to blindly follow them.

Unfortunately, people usually go through life operating on autopilot, being led around by their minds. As a result, their daily existence is mired in what we commonly refer to as “the struggles of life”: stress, anxiety, worry, fear, depression, self-doubt, et cetera.

You don’t have to live on autopilot, however. You can start practicing now — you can cultivate awareness, become proficient at observing mind-made activity, and interrupt the automatic process of thought-emotion-action.

The more you practice, the better you get. And life improves dramatically as a result.

If you’re interested in applying some of these concepts to your life, visit “Your inner narrative” to find out about awareness-based behavior therapy.

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