Have you ever had bad or negative thoughts? Would you be embarrassed or delighted if others could listen to the thoughts? How would this situation make you feel?
As mental health clinicians we often work with individuals who self-report as feeling like a bad person…because the thoughts in [their] head are bad. As we probe for more information about their personal quarrel, many times individuals are confused because they do not know where the thoughts are coming from. Some clients may say, “I have a good life. Nothing terrible has ever happened to me but I just can’t stop having these negative thoughts.” Another client may have a situation in which they have an extensive history of trauma (i.e. some forms of abuse). When I work with these types of clients, they usually indicate that their negative thinking began as a result of their trauma. Though the situation for each individual client is different, there is a common connection or theme in how most of them label themselves. “I aint sh*t”, “I’m pathetic”, “I’m not worthy of love”, “My moms’ is right – I’m just a stupid dude,” “I’m better off dead because I’m a burden to other people,” etc. The problem here is not the thought itself but the fact that the client is identifying with the thought and claiming it as being their own. As soon as a person claims allegiance with a thought, the thought begins to achieve its mission of subverting the person’s well-being. The thought no longer has to convince the person that they are pathetic, bad, or a piece of sh*t, because the person has already decided (consciously or unconsciously) that the thought has more validity, credibility, and power than the person experiencing the thought. The person then begins to feel stress, anger, anxiety, etc. When a person falls victim to this maladaptive thought process, they do not become a prisoner of their own thinking, they become a prisoner of thoughts.
In order to regain a sense or state of healthiness one must understand that thoughts are simply thoughts. They are not necessarily anyone’s property. Some thoughts are welcomed and some are not. Some have a brief stay in the mind and some stay longer but they are not necessarily our thoughts. They enter and exit our minds. For example, “When looking up at the sky, many phenomena such as clouds, birds, planes, etc. are perceived to be passing by. You can see the clouds float by because you are not the clouds; rather you are the witness of those clouds,” (Edwards, 2004). In the same way that Dr. Ian C. Edwards vividly explains that we are witnesses of the clouds, we are also witnesses of our thoughts; but we are not our thoughts. Occasionally, I experience negative thoughts and some of them are extremely unhealthy. I am not fully aware of what causes them or where they come from, but because I do not identify with them, they do not bother me. Many times I laugh at them which makes my experience humorous and not horrifying.
I recently listened to some audio archives of Alan Watts discussing the Buddha Mind and he said:
“If you bothered about one such reflection [i.e. thoughts], you are certain to go astray. Your thoughts don’t lay deep enough. They rise from the shallows of your mind…Thoughts aren’t entities. So, if you permit them to rise, reflect themselves, or cease all together as they are prone to do, and if you don’t worry about them, then you’ll never go astray. In this way, let 100 [or] 1,000 thoughts arise and it’s as if not one has arisen.” (Watts, 2004).
My recommendations to anyone who is being imprisoned by thoughts are the following:
1) Do not claim total allegiance with thoughts (especially negative or unhealthy ones). Remember that “…the mind becomes empty when we disidentify with the experienced phenomenon,” (Edwards, 2004).
2) Recognize that you are powerless when it comes to trying to control your thoughts, but understand that you can find power within this powerless experience if you become a spectator or a witness of thoughts without becoming them.
© 05/13/2015 Shawn S. Coleman, MS PC (Shawn is a case manager at Duquesne University Counseling and Wellbeing Center)
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Edwards, D. I. (2004). The Dawning of Awareness on a Juvenile Sex Offender Unit. The World Of OSHO – VIHA CONNECTION, 19.
Watts, A. (2004). Out of Your Mind.