Gaining Control of Negative Thoughts
LETS TALK -
Individual Couple Family Counsellor
Published in Goldstream Gazette
For years, I’ve been very curious about what it takes to be happy. This was a personal curiosity I aquired when I was thirteen, during the time my parents separated - and my mother explained: “Paul, you see your dad and I just weren’t happy together anymore.”
"Not happy anymore!" I thought. "What do you mean? Not happy anymore?" "How could that be?"
Thus arose a major passion and question to research through my life. "What does it take to be happy in relationship and in one's life?" "What are the keys to being happy?"
This article is a report on some of my findings, the principles and answers to this question, that I discovered along the way.
The first exciting breakthrough occured when I came to realize - “Events themselves don’t make me feel…”
Or to use the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus:
“People are disturbed not by what happens to them, but by their thoughts about what happens to them.”
When I looked I could see people could be happy in a wide variety of challenging circumstances - or not. That it wasn't the "things that happened" or the circumstances of life that troubled us. It was our thoughts about the circumstances that create our unhapiness.
It was clear to me most people lived their lives like "the event made them feel" and that this was a principle so clear and simple in its obviousness that most people totally ignore it or pass it by.
Yet it was true. Whenever I experienced a stressful feeling – anything from mild discomfort to sadness, anger, anxiety, fear - I could see that there was a clear and specific thought that had appeared that caused my feeling reaction.
Waiting in the line up at the bank did not make me impatient. (though I thought so) It was the things I was saying to myself ABOUT waiting in the line up, that caused my experience. My partner being late for dinner did not create the feelings I was experiencing. It was the thoughts I was having "about" her being late that was causing my experience.
It was the chatter going on in my head, what I was saying to myself, what I believed to be true, that caused the feelings I had.
This was a significant insight and directed me to look more closely within.
What was the nature of the thoughts, reactions, and stories that so commonly appeared in my life and in relationship?
Quieting myself, I could see an assortment of judgments, anxieties, desires, opinions, constantly appearing within. A constant stream of concerns.
I became more curious and still. What were these thoughts and stories driving at? What was their thrust? My thoughts seemed to be quite automotic, to have a life all of their own. What was their nature?
Clearly as I watched my inner chatter, I saw an enormous amount of self-interest and self importance - fussing, judging, knowing. These thoughts were all about “me” – my opinions, fears, hopes, annoyances, struggles, strategies. Always a judging of “reality”, of things that were happening in “my” world. Always a sense of “I know” “I want”. “I don’t want”. “I like” “I don’t like”, That’s good”, “That’s bad."
I saw a sense of continual efforting, of trying to prove something, of striving, of “things never being quite good enough, not yet”, of dissatisfaction, of discontent.
Secondly, as I watched this thinking, I could see that if I thought something to myself - I rarely questioned the truth of my thoughts. If I thought it I unthinkingly believed it.
This startled me. I could see my thoughts and stories gave me my experience, my world, and the quality of my life. Yet these thoughts were not only automatic, just seemed to "go off", they were rarely challenged or questioned.
So I continued to watch and I began to question. It was then that I noticed a lot of what I was saying to myself, while on first cut I believed to be true, wasn’t necessarily true at all.
Example: “I have to do it ( everthing ) right.” "I can't really say no". "I didn't do that well." "My wife doesn't appreciate me. "My son never listens." "I can't do that."
I could see when I quietly questioned and inquired, so many of these thoughts weren't really true at all and they caused personal stress.
It was like I was living in hypnosis, a trance, a dream world.
It was at this point I could see that it wasn't "troubling thoughts" that was the problem. It was my "believing them". It was the failure to first, see, and secondly, question, our stressful thoughts.
The Present Moment and Reality.
It was at this time in my exploration, I saw something else. I saw there was a vast difference between the reality of this moment right here, right now, - and the thoughts or “stories” I was telling myself. I saw that what we call “reality” is not found in my thoughts.
Reality could be said to be a very pointed "here-and-now" thing. Reality was found in the present moment. The cool of the orange juice passing down my throat. The sunshine coming through the kitchen window. My partner across from me. Her request to "pass the scones". This was real life.
Real life was shot with "presence". And Real life was meant to be experienced.
My thoughts and stories were ideas and “descriptions”, interpetations, words after the fact. They were not real life. This was an enormous discovery.
Something shifted in my life when I began to acknowledge and desire only reality, As a practice, to let go, drop, into the experience of this moment here and now.
It was at this point life exuded a delightful simplicity, an ease, a grace, of its own.
Living in inquiry
At this point in my exploration, I met the author Byron Katie through her best selling book “Loving What Is”. “Katie,” as she’s called, designed an exciting and powerful way to examine and inquire into our thoughts and their impact on our experience of life.
Katie proposes all our stress and suffering is caused whenever we “quarrell with reality.” She suggests it is our quarrel with “what is”, the wanting things to “be some other way” that was the source of our unhappiness!
For Katie, the way to end suffering was to investigate and question our thoughts behind it. To do this, she invented a set of four simple yet profound questions. Questions which when asked and engaged in authentically, produce release and whole new perspectives.
The inquiry teaches freedom through the very thoughts that are creating our stress or unhappiness. E.G. “My wife doesn’t support me” “Work is so stressful. “My boss is controlling ” “My teacher never liked me.” "My son never listens."
Katie promises that with practice, anyone can do this. This is living openly, not attached to thought, in a state of questioning.
All is well
My work continued. Using the tools of inquiry, I saw that when I began to watch and question my stressful thoughts, there was an authentic sense of release. Coupled with the practice of falling into this present moment, an ease and joy seemed to awaken in me. I began to experience an exciting new possibility of being happy, being satisfied.
By watching openly, quietly, without believing so many of my thoughts, long held stories of quarrel, judgment, and resistance to life disappeared. Life became lighter and simpler. I was left, open, quite empty, and present.
As I learned to become still, I saw that the fact was - I already was free and satisfied! The natural state in my life - in life period - was free and peaceful.
I saw I had made a mistake. Nothing was wrong. There may be a real life situation or challenge to respond to, but nothing was wrong. The truth of my experience was now becoming - All is well. Every moment. This stillness prevailed.
My search into happiness was bearing fruit. I was getting my hands on the magic wand. I was discovering what it takes to look after my own satisfaction and well-being.
Today it has become my joy and passion to share this exploration with others.
Paul Beckow is a marriage therapist in the West Shore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Paul Beckow Counselling 250 721 2477.
For personal or couple counselling, for more information, or to register for a course - please contact Paul Beckow at The Victoria Family Institute.