When Mindfulness Isn’t Enough: Three Tactics for Persistent Thought Patterns
Our thoughts are like cable programming. Most of us, however, have lost the remote. We’re stuck with whatever is on.
Certain programs, it seems, air more than we would ever choose. The back pain complaint channel, for example, sees more than it’s fair share of time in the sun. Who wants to think about that? Even warm memories – like that time you nursed a flock of orphaned goslings back to health – lose their interest after thousands of mental screenings.
This inner theater is, of course, nothing but ephemeral mind waves. Thoughts are merely transient flurries of brain activity, not the ponderous forces we take them to be. Mindfulness is the art of seeing this clearly. In the light of true awareness, thoughts have no real power over us.
But sometimes mindfulness isn’t enough. No matter how many times we notice a painful memory, it returns as if to mock our unenlightened efforts. Someone has commandeered our mental remote and keeps flipping on Fox News. The worst stories, it seems, are the most persistent.
This can be frustrating. Some recurring thought patterns, it seems, won’t simply disappear when we notice them. In these special cases, Paul McCartney’s advice to “let it be” has failed us.
Something must be done. Here are three ideas:
1) IS IT USEFUL?
The first tactic should appeal to my left-brained, logical, readers. “There’s one basic question to ask yourself when you’re reflecting about something,” begins distinguished meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein: “Is it useful?”*
Allow me to elaborate. About two weeks ago, I underwent the joyful process known as moving. In the weeks leading up, I could literally think of nothing else. Have I disconnected power? Is this the right move for me? Will the movers be a gang of skinny teenagers? **
Despite my calm exterior, I was often in a state of panic about the impending event. When I remembered to ask “is it useful?”, however, my mind settled right down. Most of the time, the answer was no, not at all. I think this holds true for most of my thoughts.
2) DEAD END
The next strategy is more suited to visual learners. Yet again, Goldstein deserves the credit. The problem is - I can’t remember which of his talks it comes from. Sorry Joseph, I just can’t keep track of your vast catalogue. Please understand.
Anyway, get your powers of visualization ready. At the first sign of an especially stubborn thought process – be it a memory of a past relationship, a self-lamentation, or a chorus of protest over a pain in your neck – imagine a yellow “DEAD END” sign in your visual field. Throw it right up there. This sends a direct message to your brain that you won’t tolerate its choice of programming.
3) LAUGH IT OFF
If picturing a road sign seems absurd, I get it. Have an extended chuckle at my expense. But then have one at yours too.
This is, in fact, a crucial tactic for diffusing persistent thought patterns: a sense of humor about the inner workings of your mind. But don’t just take it from me, a truly unaccomplished jokester. Listen to Dilbert creator Scott Adams when he says that “humor puts life in perspective and sometimes helps you laugh at even the worst of your problems.”
There must be a willingness to embrace our inner fool. When I catch myself heading down a well-trod mental rut, I sprinkle some self-deprecating commentary to lighten the mood. Making fun of myself can be great fun. And if I can manage a smile, it’s like parting the storm clouds in my mind. The thoughts lose their thunder.
Everyone, of course, has a unique sense of humor. Maybe you get a kick out of singing chipmunks or squelching noises or whatever you’re into. It doesn’t matter - just tailor it to disarm your negative thoughts. Then watch your mental life go from menacing to amusing.
*Goldstein, Joseph. Dharma Talk. "11/04 Q & A." 2015.
**This last one, unfortunately, turned out to be mostly true. Needless to say, I did a lot of heavy lifting. My wrist paid the price.