If you’re familiar with contemporary definitions of mindfulness, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of not getting too attached to our thoughts, but letting them arise and subside of their own accord, like clouds. Our job is just to witness them, non-judgmentally, and let them fade away.
Although this is pretty good advice, there’s a nuance to it, which isn’t always included: We have to inspect our thoughts a little bit, so that their frequency will diminish over time. We can’t just twiddle our thumbs till a negative thought goes away—that’s not so therapeutic in the long-run. And this is where clinical psychology and Buddhism have dovetailed: They both acknowledge that negative thoughts are really just a part of being human, and if we push them away or repress them, or even just wait for them to go, they’ll get worse. Rather, inspecting them just a bit, to understand their origins, is a more productive way of dealing with them.
Shannon Kolakowski, PsyD, a psychologist in the Sarasota area and author of When Depression Hurts Your Relationship, points out that we tend to avoid negative thoughts because we fear them. “In other areas of our life, such as seeing a dangerous driver on the road, we avoid things to stay safe,” she says. “So when we have a thought we don’t like, such as, ‘I’m going to be alone forever,’ it feels scary and we might try to avoid it. The problem is, it doesn’t work. The thought may even become stronger or more convincing because you’re dreading it so much, as if you’re running from a scary truth.”
The better way is to reconfigure your relationship to your thoughts, she says, by using a method like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which helps us “defuse” our thoughts, in part by recognizing that thoughts do come and go, but also by exploring them to get a bit of a handle on them.
“Defusion is the process of noticing your negative or anxious thoughts, such as ‘I’m going to be alone forever,’ and then responding to it with openness and curiosity as a distant observer,” says Kolakowski. “Rather than accept your thought as the ultimate truth, you recognize that thoughts will come and go, but you don’t have to believe them or act on them. You become an observer, saying to yourself ‘I’m having the thought that I’m going to be alone forever,’ and then try to explore that thought with curiosity. ‘Because I’m going through a divorce right now, it’s understandable I’m having a hard time thinking positively about being in a relationship again. But that doesn’t mean it’s true that I’ll be alone forever. There are lots of reasons to think I’ll find a partner when I’m more ready if that’s what I want.’”
The interesting thing about ACT is that it acknowledges that our natural state will include some negativity. It doesn’t try to get rid of the negative thinking, just change how we react to it.
“Creating a new relationship with your thoughts is freeing,” says Kolakowski. “You may not be able to control what thoughts pop up, but you can control how you respond to them. And you can control what action you take. For example, the thought of being alone forever doesn’t have to lead you to give up on dating or stay in an unhappy relationship. It’s just a thought, and you get to decide how to live your life according to what you value.”
And this idea has been around for a very long time. Ajahn Amaro, a Theravada Buddhist monk, and abbot at the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery just north of London, has a similar take. He points out that reframing our relationship to our thoughts has existed for thousands of years, in Buddhism; and modern psychology has built on many of these tenets in practices like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy(MBCT), a variation of the gold-standard CBT.
“We tend to think that our thoughts are oppressive,” says Amaro, “and that therefore we should make them go away…Oftentimes meditation instruction is about stopping your thinking, as if thoughts are a kind of brain disease, an infection, an intruder. But the very act of pushing them away, and adopting the sense that they’re intrinsically intrusive, actually makes them more powerful. Rather than relating to them in that way, there’s another attitude we can have toward them—not taking them personally.”
He adds that the vast majority of our thoughts are, at best, random, and at worst, destructive. “One of the first things I emphasize when teaching,” he says, “is that 5% of our thoughts are actually meaningful and relevant, and 95% are replaying movies, music, and recollecting. It’s mostly just debris. I often encourage people to look at it like listening to neighbor’s radio – you understand the content, you can hear the words; you might sometimes get excited about an ad, or a talk show. But you don’t really care on a personal level. You relate to your neighbor’s radio in a non-personal way—we can have the same relationship to activity of the mind. It doesn’t have to make a big story around the thoughts. It’s an attitudinal shift.”
Like psychology suggests, we should first notice our thoughts and, rather than just waiting for them to go away, investigate them just a bit—especially the negative ones—to understand why a certain thought might pop up, especially repeatedly. “In terms of meditation, it’s not just waiting for thoughts to end,” says Amaro, “but reflecting, ‘I’m thinking this because I heard that tune earlier’ or whatever it may be. You can do a small amount of investigation…. This helps difficult or oppressive patterns of thinking lose their power and go away.”
Again, realizing that negative thoughts are just a part of how the mind works can help relieve us of the idea that every thought meanssomething deeper or tells some deep truth about ourselves. “Recognizing that this is just a part of nature,” he says, “helps us shift from a self-centered view to one of nature. At this moment it’s exactly this way. When the heart opens and we say: ‘This feeling is this way’; in a strange manner, by fully accepting it, it loses its power to convince.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that this method works not just for individual negative thoughts, but for depression itself, which isn’t always a matter of discrete thoughts, but more often, a dull sensation of pain or despair.
“Again,” says Amaro, “the idea is not to say, ‘boy, this is a horrible feeling,’ and waiting for it to be over. If in depression, your body feels like lead weight, heavy and dull, or you have tightness across shoulders. There’s a physicality to the dark ache of depression. You can meditate with kindness toward it – ‘this is the lead-weight feeling.’ A kind of chemistry is then going on, so that which knows heaviness isn’t heavy; that which knows tightness is not tight; that which knows agitation isn’t agitated.”
And all of this intersects really neatly with what we know about the brain—the more we practice we have shifting attention and changing our thought patterns with methods like MBCT, CBT, ACT, or mindfulness meditation, the more we lay down different (better) neural tracks over time.
“The Buddha described how thinking is basically divided thoughts into two different categories,” says Amaro. “On the one hand, wholesome thoughts lead to happiness and peacefulness, and on the other, those that lead to harm or confusion or stress. He observed that that which the mind dwells upon conditions the tendencies of the mind in the future – in other words, each type of thought makes a tract, a rut in the brain. So, if we want to experience peace and happiness, we should follow the thoughts that conduce to those qualities, and leave the others aside. And, amazingly, modern neuroscientific studies on the brain’s plasticity have confirmed this.”