“There is nothing that isn’t true if you believe it, and there’s nothing that’s true, believe it or not.” – Byron Katie
Last time I established the basic causal relationship between negative thoughts and negative emotions. Most of our emotional suffering stems from this, from the ‘dirty pain’ I spoke about (which is emotional pain stemming not so much from an objective situation as our subjective response to it: our thoughts, interpretations, judgements and conditioned responses).
There are two ways to break the vicious negative thought/negative emotion loop. You can either release the emotion, or dismantle the thought or story that precipitated it. I’m going to show you how to do both, because I’m good that way! But I’m going to start with a technique for examining and letting go of the underlying thought. Why start there? Quite simply because that’s what’s at the root of the suffering, and unless you dig deep and get rid of the roots, it’s likely to come back again quite quickly.
If you were to ask me the most important things I’ve learned in life, it’d probably include the following:
1. Our thoughts are just thoughts. They aren’t reality. At best, they’re crude, second-hand interpretations of reality, distorted by all manner of mental filters (such as personal and social/societal conditioning, past experience, prejudices, limited understanding, ignorance and lazy thinking, etc).
2. Accordingly, we don’t see reality as it is, we see it as we are (coloured by our thoughts, beliefs, opinions and stories).
2. If we unquestioningly believe our thoughts, we’re going to suffer.
3. We are not our thoughts. We are the observer of our thoughts.
4. We have the intellect and the ability to determine which of our thoughts are true and which are untrue; which cause harm and which bring peace.
5. If we want to be at peace, we need to quit indulging the thoughts and stories that cause us to suffer.
How do we do that? We question them! It’s actually easy as pie.
First of all you need to determine which thoughts, beliefs and mental stories are causing you to suffer. There’s a quote from A Course In Miracles that states we’re never upset for the reason we think we are. There’s a lot of truth to that.
Remember, situations and events in themselves are largely neutral. That’s why a dozen different people might react in a dozen different ways to the same situation. It’s our interpretation and judgement of that stimulus that affects our response, both in terms of our emotional reaction and any subsequent action we take (or don’t take). This is a really important understanding. I recently read a really cool definition of emotional disturbance as being the result of “being at friction with a fact”. It’s not so much the fact that brings the pain as it is our reaction and response to the fact.
Whenever we’re upset, we can identity the real reason we’re upset by asking ourselves:
“What would I need to think or believe in order to be upset about this?”
Let’s say you’re feeling upset because Sally was nasty to you. Well, Sally’s a bitch, she’s nasty to everyone. It’s the way she is; it’s her programming. If you were to inquire with the above question, you might realise that the real reason you’re upset is “because I think Sally should be nice to me”. Or perhaps “because if people aren’t pleasant to me, it means I’m not good enough as a person”, or “other people’s behaviour toward me either validates or invalidates me”. To use internet lingo, that’s a faulty script. It’s no wonder errors are appearing on screen.
Some of the commonest faulty scripts stem from our resistance to life as it is, our beliefs that: “situation or person X/Y/Z shouldn’t be this way”, “this shouldn’t have happened”, “I shouldn’t be this way”, “he/she/it isn’t good enough”, “I’m not good enough”.
Once you’ve figured out the thought, belief or story that’s causing the emotional disturbance, you can then employ a bit of self inquiry. Instead of unquestioningly believing the thought, as you most likely have been up til now (hence your suffering), you use your intellect to dissect it and see if it really is true. If it’s not (and it rarely is), you’ve been suffering over nothing but a misapprehension.
The technique here is from Byron Katie, who calls it ‘the Work’. It’s as awesome as her name is. You can read all about it in her book Loving What Is or on her website. I’ve modified it ever so slightly by adding an additional question or two. As Katie says:
“As you inquire into your own thoughts, you discover how attachment to a belief or story causes suffering. The mind’s natural condition is peace. Then a thought enters, you believe it, and the peace seems to disappear. You notice the feeling of stress in the moment, and the feeling lets you know that you are opposing what is by believing the thought; it tells you that you are at war with reality. When you question the thought behind the feeling and realise it isn’t true, you become present outside your story. Then the story falls away in the light of awareness and only awareness of what really is remains. Peace is who you are without a story, until the next stressful story appears. Eventually, inquiry becomes alive in you as the natural, wordless response of awareness to the thoughts that arise.”
HOW TO OVERCOME NEGATIVE THOUGHTS AND BELIEFS
Right. Get a pen and paper, identify that troubling thought or belief and prepare to be astonished. Holding the thought in mind, ask yourself the following questions and be very honest and open.
1. Is it true?
(To begin with you’ll probably think, “yeah, of course it’s true! I wouldn’t think it otherwise”. Fine. Move on to question 2)
2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
(For something to be absolutely true it has to be true ALL the time, and it has to be IRREFUTABLY true. If you’re really, totally honest with yourself you’ll see that there are actually very few things we can be ABSOLUTELY certain about in life. How the heck can you ABSOLUTELY know that you’re not good enough, or that it shouldn’t be raining today, or that you shouldn’t have lost your job or spilled that cup of tea? Whether your answer is yes or no — and if you’re really really honest most the time you’ll have to concede that you can’t be absolutely certain it’s true — move onto the next question)
3. How do you react when you believe that it’s true?
(Be really honest and detailed here. When you believe “____” how do you feel emotionally? How does it affect the way you live your life, interact with others, feel about yourself? It’s probably not a pretty picture)
4. What would the cost be if you continued to hold onto that thought?
(Project ahead a moment: if you continue believing “____” what will be the cost to you personally, in terms of your relationships, emotions, your job/career, your friends, even financially perhaps? How will it negatively impact your life in all areas?)
5. Would you impose that same thought on someone you loved?
(Would you be happy for your son or daughter or someone close to you were to internalise this thought or belief themselves?)
6. How would you be without that thought?
(If someone pressed a button and the thought/belief was erased from your brain and could never come back, how different would things be? How would you feel, and how would your life be different?)
The final step is called the TURN AROUND.
You’ve probably come to see that you cannot prove the truth of the original thought. You’ve seen how harbouring this thought adversely affects you, and how much better off you’d be without out. You’re at the stage where you can now let it go. You don’t hold onto red hot coals, because they burn your hands — you drop them immediately! Similarly, you don’t hold onto erroneous thoughts and beliefs because they hurt you just as badly. You can just drop them as well!
To turn around, take the original statement and reverse it. Make it into the exact opposite statement and then see if you can find three ways in which this new statement is truer than the original thought. The thought “I’m not good enough” would become “I am good enough”. Find at least three ways, and preferably more, to support that statement. You can if you try.
This technique really works. But you have to have a degree of openness and honesty and not be tightly clutching onto your thoughts and beliefs for dear life (as many people do). A very similar approach is employed by Cognitive Behavioural Therapists, so I may in fact have just saved you a fortune in therapy bills!😉
You can try it on any thought that you find causes you upset. It may take a few attempts to rid yourself some of the really deeply-rooted thoughts and beliefs. What tends to happen with beliefs is that the moment they form, we unconsciously start searching out what we perceive as ‘evidence’ to support that belief, while filtering out anything that contradicts it. That’s why the person who believes they’re not good enough might ignore ten compliments and fixate on one piece of criticism.
If you’ve been living your life in such a mode for years on end, it can take a fair bit of work to excavate all these erroneous thoughts and beliefs. They become what in vedantic psychology is termed ‘vasanas’, or grooves in consciousness. But the tools are here — and you can use them at any time. You need to keep up the motivation to work on this, and you do that by being very clear that indulging and holding onto negative thoughts and beliefs is the direct cause of your emotional suffering. If you’re unwilling to let go of them you’ll keep suffering. It’s as simple as that. Yet you don’t have to suffer. I don’t for a second believe that we were born to suffer. We were born to be free, and we can be free…by letting go of all that holds us back and causes us pain. Letting go, letting go and then letting go some more…
Next time I’m going to share another amazing technique: this one for quickly and easily releasing negative emotions. It’s so ridiculously simple, but it works.