Wednesday, 15 July 2015

A Short Course In Mindfulness - 3 - Recognize the Negative

In the past, when I have raised the subject of preventing - or at least attempting to prevent - negative thinking, I have often been told that I must be particularly fortunate in life if I never fall into the "dark" places psychologically, and that those less fortunate have a good reason to do so.

I think there are two misunderstandings here.

One is that a person's situation decides his attitude. It does not. As it happens, one of the readers of this short course lives in Gaza. It's not easy to even access the internet there, let alone find time to read trivial social media, but as a matter of fact, people who live there are trying to deal with everyday life too, and they have found that attitude helps. They have lost so much, but they still have their choices here.

Secondly, it isn't necessary, or perhaps possible to ignore the negative aspects of life. It's not even desirable. It must be seen, it must be acknowledged. But the plan is to not be overwhelmed by it. The plan is to transfer the fear and worry into action. To move forward. To thrive, not just survive.

The only way to do this is to be aware of how we think. Please read this interesting article:

OK, this is all very well, you say, but my brain races with stupid thoughts.

Then fill it with something else.

There's a really old fashioned method of getting to sleep, and it has inspired many jokes and cartoons.

In my personal experience, that's not possible. For a start, I never go to bed until I'm tired, and if that's really late then so be it, and I would advise anyone to do the same. And a tired person would not get that far. So, unless you are an actual insomniac, counting would work quite well.

The reason it works is that you are concentrating on the numbers, so you can't think of anything else, and numbers are boring.

But if you want to be sure it works, you can do it while concentrating on your breathing too.

(N.B. if you try this, no cheating, and it doesn't work, you should seek professional help, and I'm not joking.)

Now, unlike many of you, I have no problem getting to sleep. Unless I'm in actual pain, or too cold, etc, I usually go out like a light as soon as my head hits the pillow. But at some point during the night it is common, or even normal, for me as well as many others to wake up, and THEN it is hard to go back to sleep. It may be that the call of nature wakes you, or a noise outside, but whatever it is, you've had half or more of a night's sleep and you are not really tired anymore.

You could get up then. But if it's 3am, and you start your day, you're going to be knackered later on.
You could use the 4-7-8 method.
You could lie awake and worry.
Or, you could use the time usefully.

I am quite fond of those middle of the night "me only" sessions. Sometimes I "write". It's only the outline of something, and then when I get up the next morning I jot that down for fleshing out at the keyboard.

Sometimes I design. Yeah, in my head.

Sometimes I plan the next day.

Sometimes I watch the stars out of my window and try to be one with the night. That's my absolute favourite, and I recommend it if you can do it, but if course that may not be your thing.

What I don't do is worry.

Oh, I used to. But I learned. Not only did I learn that it didn't help, I learned how not to do it. I learned that for a start, thoughts at 3am tend to be unrealistic thoughts. Nobody seems to know why this is, but it works both ways. Ideas that seem to be absolutely brilliant at 3am look very different when considered during daytime. And things that seem frightening or difficult at 3am turn out to be perfectly doable. So, the first thing to do is examine those thoughts, put them on trial, as it were.

Determine (by being totally honest with yourself) if the thought is negative, that is to say it falls into the pattern of "I'm scared X will happen", "What if X happens", etc., or "X happened yesterday, let me just replay that tape over and over a few times".

Ah, you say. I'm just trying to figure how to prevent X happening soon (or again). I'm planning.

Are you? There is a difference between worrying and planning. And it's very hard to discern between the two in the middle of the night.

Therefore, this is a good beginner's time/place to practice mindfulness. Grab that opportunity the next time it happens.

Say to yourself "this is not a good time to think about this" and save it for daytime. Choose instead to fill your mind with something else. Try any of these, and be determined about it.

Go back to sleep using the 4-7-8 method or any other trick you know that works.
Create a list of pleasant memories. Reject any unpleasant ones that creep in.
Create a bucket list of good things to do. Be as unrealistic as you like so long as it's all good stuff.
If you have a good imagination, write a story in your head, a happy story.
Play the internal jukebox in your head, choosing upbeat or soothing songs. Concentrate hard on either the lyrics or music, and reject intrusive thoughts...turn up the volume.
Word puzzles. Think of a random letter and small number and then try to find words, e.g. 6 letter words beginning with H.

If something is really weighing you down, and none of this works in getting it out of your head, there is a weird emergency meditation.

Write a letter of objection. The addressee isn't important. If you are religious it could be God, but it doesn't matter who you are objecting to. Instead of worrying, begin "Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing to complain about........." Then spell it out. Explain in very formal and precise words, who is suffering, why they are suffering, or who will suffer. Explain the reason behind this, in full detail, in the style of a police report of court deposition. Assume the person you are complaining to knows nothing about it, so make it detailed, but don't repeat yourself or use any form of emotive language. Then pretend they can fix it, and tell them exactly what you want done about it.

OK, so that's all night-tine stuff, what about during the day?

Talk to yourself.

You do it anyway. You do. When you are standing in the checkout line and you see a person who looks strange in some way, unless you are INCREDIBLY rude, you don't say what you are thinking out loud. You say it in your head.

This is a very good starting point. You are being negative about something obvious and not yourself. You are being judgemental. You consider it OK to do so as you are keeping it to yourself. That's the best way, right? No......

This was my epiphany within mindfulness. I had learned not to share those thoughts with others, but one day in the checkout line in a "home and garden" type store, I caught myself being very judgemental about a couple ahead of me. And I stopped myself in mid-thought, chastised myself, and having done all this, remembered.

I'm not going to tell you it was the last time it happened, but every time I catch myself doing it, I remember that day.

Now, relax. Nobody expects you be be oblivious of other people's behaviour. Or even not to judge it. The whole point is to be aware of your thoughts. You don't have to repress anything, and it's probably not humanly possible to find the positive, or even the balanced in everything. Unless you are Carrot Ironfoundersson (qv). Most human humour is based on relieving stress by making fun of one another. But the point is to know what you are doing. Because that way you can STOP, when necessary.

Once you have recognized the obvious negativity you feel about others, you'll find it easier to recognize it when you do it to yourself.

Today's homework. Whenever you find yourself thinking something negative towards other people, ask yourself why.


  1. I was practically born asking the question, "Why?" Drove my mother nuts. That curiosity hasn't really stopped, happily. Oh, another share, back when I was "depressed," my therapist would remark that I was the happiest depressed person she knew. So even while being attended to by professionals, ones choice of attitude can be noticeable. ~ ;) Blessings! <3

    1. It happens, and that's why I think "mood disorders" isn't quite right.