About twenty years ago, I was watching the evening news with my grandfather just hours before a 12-hour drive to North Carolina.
One segment featured live coverage of a fire that had blocked all southbound lanes of Route 95 near New York City — the result of an overturned gas tanker igniting a truck carrying rubber tires.
Turning to me during a commercial, he said: “Road’s on fire. Go around it.”
His uncanny advice prepared me to recognize simple wisdom — like the observation of a former client undergoing drug treatment. During a group session, he exclaimed:
F*ck self-help books. The authors are in it to help themselves … to your money.
In looking for reasons why Americans continue to grow more mentally ill, the answer may be found in our relationship with thought.
It seems like we’re afraid of it.
Thought and Emotion
Learning how to change your thoughts requires no effort and also no involvement with the content of the thought. They’ll usually change on their own.
Whether you’re noticing anxiety related to COVID-19, or feeling depressed after a recent breakup, the specifics of the situations are irrelevant to the solution. By focusing on the specifics, the solution obscures itself even further.
What matters is learning to understand the role of thought and its relationship with emotion — like a backstage pass into your brain.
Think of thoughts as fuel for difficult emotions like anger, stress, depression, or fear — to name just a few.
In the human brain, thought and emotion are required to occur together, but in no particular order. Their complementary role allows emotion to do its job, which is to encode thought into memory. This is why big events stand out when you recall your past.
Over time, and with enough experience, we learn to respond with an aversion to the disturbing thoughts that naturally associate with primary emotions like fear or terror.
We feel the effects of difficult emotions through our thoughts, and it is therefore quite easy to confuse thought with emotion.
Ask any trauma survivor: even when the fear fades, we are left with the thoughts formed in its wake.
If you grew up in a harsh, abusive household, then it would stand to reason that a boss who offers you pointed feedback might be perceived as a jerk, while the situation invokes feelings of anger and frustration.
Blame diffuses emotion because it takes their fuel away. Calling someone a jerk makes up your mind, and a made-up mind suffers less in the short-term.
When we remember how the system works, we escape suffering forever.
Understanding the system teaches us that there are no jerks; we create them with our thoughts. Instead, there are only thoughts about other people, which can easily vary across individuals on the basis of our developmental history. For proof, look no further than social views on Donald Trump.
So why is it important to understand the nature of thought, rather than fight it or attempt to analyze content?
Because we’re more effective when we know something about the thing we’re trying to change.
Systems of Thought
Dealing effectively with difficult emotions requires nothing more than a little bit of understanding about how the system works.
If you’ve been in a car or a plane, then you know that fearful thoughts dissolve as you begin to learn how something works.
For example, when my mechanic drives my car before a tune-up, she’s not worried about the faint rattling noises that I interpret as signs of my Toyota’s early demise. She’s not worried because she understands the nature of cars, whereas I do not. As a result, any small noise causes me varying degrees of panic, but causes my mechanic curiosity and ignites her problem-solving capabilities.
Another example comes from my first time on an airplane. It was terrifying, so before my next flight, I completed an online course designed to reduce flight panic via physics lessons about lift, force, and air pressure (interestingly, air is only slightly less dense than water and can steady a jet during flight). The course also discussed the mechanics of turbulence, and what to expect during the flight.
Understanding how thought works is like knowing how an aircraft responds to turbulence: as a natural part of the journey.
And yes, it is that simple.
Braving Difficult Thoughts
Although I was terrified on my first flight, I did not actually fear the act of flying. In other words, “fear of flying” isn’t a thing.
Fearing my thoughts and faulty beliefs about flying is a thing — a human thing. I was ignorant of how my own machinery worked, and as a result, I was stuck white-knuckling my way through the flight.
How many people go through life, a spirit inside a machine, completely ignorant of our own human machinery?
Recognizing thoughts associated with difficult emotions makes it easier to prevent short- and long-term psychological damage — but like ninjas, difficult thoughts and emotions are experts in stealth.
As I’ve become more aware of how thought works, I’ve developed some natural defenses against thought attacks. What is interesting is that I’ve done nothing proactively to “defeat” anxiety, I’ve just learned to listen to it, and in the process, I’ve noticed some phrases that keep showing up on their own. If you are sincere about learning how thought works, then you’ll surely develop your own. However, here are four that you can try out.
1. I see what you’re trying to do here. This one truly seems to stop dissonant thoughts dead in their tracks. Like a mischievous child attempting to sneak a popsicle from the freezer, they’ll stop once they notice mom watching from around the corner. Buddha reached enlightenment when he discovered the nature of thought through meditation, and as a result, he could see how his dark thoughts used emotion to play tricks on him. At the precise moment of his enlightenment, he addressed his disturbing thoughts (which were embodied as the demon Mara) as such:
“House-builder, you’re seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole destroyed, gone to the Unformed, the mind has come to the end of craving.” ~Dhammapada (v. 154)
2. Thanks, but I’m not interested. We suffer when we take our thoughts too seriously and immerse ourselves in their content. Visualizing troublesome thoughts as annoying telemarketers pitching useless services tells difficult thoughts I’m not buying. Under these conditions, even the most persistent salesperson will eventually quit knocking.
3: Whoa. Where did that come from? Contrary to pseudoscience about the origin of thought, we in fact have little to no control over them. Sure, we can exert some influence, but for the most part, we are thinking beings that generate thousands of thoughts over the course of a day.
It seems like the word “whoa” sort of shocks and surprises the unwanted thoughts and takes their power away — as if the nasty thought itself might be thinking, “damn, and I was just about to bring on memories of the divorce.”
4. Alright, back to work. Borrowed from the massive library of mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, locking into the moment is always helpful to calm the mind. No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s driving, folding laundry, or sitting in a meeting — you can always do it more intentionally and better, and by focusing on specifics allows you to reclaim the mental space that anxious thoughts have tried to reserve.
Before these phrases just showed up, I was easy prey, and often found myself wrestling with my fear and anxiety, exhausting myself in attempts to evade or cover the thoughts with more pleasurable experiences like binge-watching, binge-eating, and other damaging forms of self-deception.
Understanding the nature of thought and emotion, and learning to accept difficult thoughts and emotions, is not a gateway to happiness. Instead, it is a gateway to experiencing humanity to its fullest, including a vast range of emotion — good, bad, and ugly — without the fear that fuels our urges to escape from difficult and persistent thoughts.
If you let them be, thoughts will ebb and flow all on their own. You need not fear your thoughts because they are merely thoughts — your curation of the world you’ve known. We don’t need to change, we need only to understand how our machinery works. Once you see how it works, and get just a little bit of insight here, you’ll notice anxiety and fear naturally loosening their grip because that’s what thoughts do. They can’t trick you anymore. You figured out how they work.
In their place, you will find an expanded consciousness and an awareness of your own innate wisdom.
Discovering ourselves is our nature — as the universe grew the human brain to become aware of itself, becoming deeply aware of thought and emotion is not only uniquely human but also requisite to being human.