Surely we can… right? Otherwise, why would there be a whole industry devoted to thought control?
I’m sure you’ve read books, articles and watched videos all about teaching you how to control your thoughts. I’m certain because I did the same when I was looking to break free from anxiety.
The problem with trying to control our thoughts stems from one underlying misconception. We think we have control over our thoughts. We think we get to choose which thoughts enter our mind.
People may have told you that “you get to choose which thought comes into your head.” We then feel motivated and get inspired to practice thought control, because why not? These experts are saying it’s the key to a life of no more suffering, so of course we’d give it a go.
If you’ve done this for long enough, then you’ll know that this doesn’t, unfortunately, lead to a life free from suffering. Ironically, it can actually lead to more frustration and stress which breeds more suffering. In a nutshell, thought control is a draining and futile experience.
This is because we really don’t get to choose which thought comes into our head. No matter what these experts say, they have misunderstood this basic fact somewhere along the way.
It’s actually quite destructive being told that we can choose which thoughts can come into our head. While it’s true that we can deliberately think thoughts, we cannot deliberately try to stop thinking thoughts. The harder we try, the more likely it is for the thoughts to resurface.
What’s more, we’ll end up thinking that we are a failure and beat ourselves up for thinking anxious thoughts. “If these people say that we can choose which thoughts can come into our heads, then why am I still having these anxious thoughts?”
“There really must be something wrong with me.” No there is absolutely nothing wrong with you, it’s the strategy that is inherently flawed, not you.
Another thing which causes us problems is that we start to believe thinking anxious thoughts is bad. We’ve then rendered anxious thoughts unacceptable to experience. Then, when one does inevitably show up, we have a very strong emotional reaction to them.
This needs repeating again because it’s so important
The reason why we can’t control our anxious thoughts?
We tend to assume that by gaining more conscious control over our anxiety, we will be able to free ourselves from it. If only we could be more skilful with our thoughts.
The truth, however, is that by trying to consciously control our anxiety, we actually do nothing to relieve ourselves from suffering. If anything, it just intensifies the anxiety.
We believe that we can control our thoughts
Anxious thoughts cause a lot of disturbances. Well, at least they do until we realise that it’s our own responses to these thoughts that create the most suffering. I’ll get onto this another time.
Like I mentioned a minute ago, the greatest illusion there is the belief that we can control our own thoughts. We cannot control our thinking.
It’s impossible. This is why we are left feeling more tired and frustrated when we try to block out negative thoughts. We might be able to succeed at first, but before long, another negative thought pops up.
It’s like that game we used to play down at the arcade. I believe it was called Whac-A-Mole where there would be a game board with holes in it.
In our hand would be a rubber mallet connected to the game board and this was used to whack the moles that randomly popped up through the holes. You would whack down one and then another one would pop up either in the same hole or in a different one.
This is exactly what happens when we try to control our thinking. We might, for the time being, appear to be in control of our thoughts, but another one which we perceive to be unpleasant pops up in it’s place.
We keep using this same element of control and become more and more frustrated and stressed when new thoughts keep popping up left, right and centre. Why are they doing this? Because thinking happens completely outside of our control.
Thoughts don’t care about our unrealistic notion we have around controlling our thoughts, they don’t care if we like them or not, they will just show up regardless. Not because they are out to get us or like tormenting, but because that is the nature of thought. It’s random and it’s fleeting.
Why do we keep trying to apply control when it clearly doesn’t work? When the thoughts are going to appear no matter how hard we try to control them? Because we genuinely think we have to control our thinking in order to remain in a good state of mind.
Thoughts are going to come whether we like it or not. It’s a massive waste of time and energy trying to stop them. It’s like telling our digestive system to stop digesting food.
The digestive systems job is to digest food. The hearts job is to pump blood around the body supplying oxygen and nutrients to tissues. The mind’s job is to think thoughts. No matter if they are perceived by us as good, bad or neutral, it’s job remains the same.
We are supposed to think thoughts. As long as we have a brain, then thought will always exist.
The worst use of our time and energy is in trying to control and/or stop our thoughts. It’s so futile because thinking happens automatically without any conscious control. The energy we put into trying to not think of certain thoughts or wrestling with them comes back to bite us on the backside.
If we really did have control over our thinking, then would be ever think a thought that disturbed us? Probably not would we. Isn’t this a clear enough indicator that thinking happens regardless of our attempts to control and/or stop our thoughts?
All we get to control is our response to the thoughts and the good news is, this is all we need to control in order to defuse them. The thoughts we experience are never the problem, no matter how disturbing or distressing they seem to be.
What causes us anxiety is our fearful and resistive response to these thoughts. When we respond to our unpleasant thoughts through fear and resistance, we are pouring more fuel onto the fire of anxiety.
Why? Because these responses are what the anxiety feeds on. It needs our resistance and fear to replenish itself.
If we no longer reacted to our anxious thoughts in this way, the anxiety would start to lose power because it would not be getting the fuel to rejuvenate.
We wouldn’t spend out time trying to control our digestive system, we would just accept that it’s something happening outside of our conscious control and get on with our day. We can apply the same approach when it comes to our thoughts because from my own experience, it’s been the best method.
Whilst in theory, this is really easy. In practice it takes a lot of time because we have to unlearn the habit of trying to control our thoughts. I still do it sometimes, but it’s much, much less than before. So, when you inevitably catch yourself trying to stop your thoughts, don’t beat yourself up because it’s only a habit. The most important part is catching yourself doing it. Eckhart Tolle said that the greatest agent to change is our awareness and this is absolutely true.
Giving up all conscious control is key. Just knowing that we cannot control our thinking will give you the chance to free up a lot of time and energy which you’d normally use in thought control techniques.
Trust me, it’s better spent elsewhere, onto things that you enjoy doing. This is why I always recommend the ‘acceptance and redirection of attention’ approach.
This is what’s known as cognitive shifting. We stop wasting our energy and time getting caught up in our heads trying to put our minds right by controlling our thoughts. This is a never ending cycle that never ends well.
We accept the thoughts for what they are, just thoughts. We allow them to be there without arguing with them, without making any effort in stopping them. Then, we redirect our attention onto the things that truly matter to us. We rinse and repeat this process on a continual basis. This is how the new habit of responding in a non-anxious way is formed. Practicing this process and doing it consistently overtime.
After spending lot’s of years trying so many tactics and therapies, the above process is what has helped me the most.