Managing Thoughts

Managing Thoughts

Introduction 

Thoughts are not real. However, believing in our thoughts makes them real to us. Realising this truth can free us from a lot of sufferings. After all, since thoughts are not real, we do not need to allow them to bother us. 

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Unless we can see and know for ourselves that thoughts are not real, it is hard for us to simply believe this fact.  

Thus, thoughts continue to bother us. 

Types of Thoughts 

Thoughts can be grouped into these three categories: 

  1. Positive thoughts 
  1. Negative thoughts 
  1. Neutral thoughts 

Positive thoughts make us feel good. Negative thoughts make us feel bad. Neutral thoughts do not seem to bother us either way. 

Our thoughts are what make us happy or sad. If we want to be free from sadness, then we must learn to manage our negative thoughts. 

Causes of Negative Thoughts 

What causes negative thoughts to arise? Briefly, association with past experiences – with memories imprinted in our mind.  

Inputs from the external world of the five physical senses and our own internal mental world lead to association with past imprints in our mind as we try to make sense of the world.  

Our own conditioned mind or mental habits determine how this association is managed. It is what our mind inclines to do. 

Effects of Negative Thoughts 

Negative thoughts make us worry. They make us fearful. Then, we react accordingly. 

We worry only because we want things to be other than “what is”. We worry because our expectations are not met, or are threatened. We worry because we cannot see things as they really are, or if we do see things as they really are, we have not accepted them.  We have not surrender to reality. 

What is threatened is not just our expectations. To be more accurate, it is our Self that is threatened. The ego is threatened. The ego’s safety or significance is threatened. 

Managing Negative Thoughts 

  1. Know that thoughts are not real 

The best way to manage negative thoughts, and all kinds of thoughts, is to know that thoughts are not real. It is our own belief in our thoughts that make them real to us. 

Through believing in our thoughts, we give thoughts the power to create both happiness and suffering for us. Without such a belief, thoughts have no power over us. This shows the amazing power of belief. 

This is healing at the level of wisdom (knowing and seeing). 

If we cannot see this truth for ourselves, then we must manage our negative thoughts in other ways. 

  1. Acceptance of what is 

The next method is to learn to accept things as they are, without expectations or wish for things to be other that what is. This is a form of surrendering to the universe, and to universal wisdom.  

This requires a belief that the universe will serve you what is best for your growth. 

This is healing at the level of faith. 

  1. Right View for Right Thoughts 

If you have a right world view or skillful/wholesome way of looking at life, then you will have the right perspective to lead a happy life. A wholesome perspective leads to wholesome perception, which leads to wholesome experience.  

In short, right view leads to right attitude and right thoughts. 

Another way of looking at this is that we tell ourselves the right story or narrative. Just as the way we view the world can influence how we experience life, in the same way, how we tell ourselves the narrative we believe in will influence how we experience life. 

In other words, how we choose to view the world matters. What we choose to believe in also matters. This is what is meant by “believe it and you will see it”. 

We tend to think that we believe something only when we have seen it. That is why there is a saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it”.  

But the paradox of life is such that what really happens is we first believe in something (our views or our story), then we see it or experience it as a validation of our beliefs. Here is another example of the power of belief. 

Realising this truth is important because it means that we can change how we experience life by changing our beliefs, world views and/or stories. 

  1. Stopping negative thoughts from arising 

This requires intense mindfulness and energy. The practice of meditation (bhavana) comes in useful here to strengthen the mental muscles necessary for this kind of job. 

A strong mind can stop negative thoughts from arising, or if they have already arisen, to stop them in their tracks before they can cause more damage to our well-being. 

  1. Replacing arisen negative thoughts 

This is a common method advised by psychiatrists and psychologists to manage negative thoughts. Whenever a negative thought arises, replace that negative thought with an opposite and positive thought.  

For example, if a negative thought about stealing arises, then as soon as you are aware of it, replace the thought with a positive and opposite one, such as a thought of giving or charity. 

  1. Distraction method 

If it is difficult even to replace a negative thought with a positive one, then simply try to distract yourself from the negative thought by focusing on something else that may be totally unrelated to what you are thinking about.  

For example, if you are thinking of something lustful, you can distract yourself from the thought by deciding to go for a run or jog. Finding something useful to do is a good and effective method of distracting or re-directing your thoughts. 

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