This may be a new concept for you or it might not. But I think many people walk around without comprehending it at all. This is understandable of course - in our western ways of thinking it might be considered a bit “out there” or abstract. Our society doesn’t always do the best with abstract. Oftentimes many things are boiled down to a black and white end state which isn’t always helpful.
I was talking with someone about this the other day - she was describing her myriad of negative thought loops as if there was nothing she could do about it. Unfortunately, she had no sense that she didn’t have to believe these thoughts… in essence that since she was thinking them, they must be true. This was causing her a lot of suffering. She was having thoughts such as, “they think I’m a bad parent”, “they don’t want to hang around with me”, “they think my child is a troublemaker and too difficult”, etc. She was ruminating excessively on these thoughts and making assumptions about what others were thinking. She was therefore believing them to be true herself. This was causing her to lose sleep and generally feel miserable and doubt herself a great deal.
I had an experience myself just this morning getting trapped into a negative thought loop. I was forced to take my own advice. My daughter deals with a difficult eye condition that has forced her to miss a lot of school days lately. The fact that she isn't in school, brings up a lot of guilt and worried feelings for me. This morning, I completely spiraled and went down the negative thought trap 'what if'. Such as, "what if she can't finish school". "What if she has to repeat the 7th grade"? "What if she doesn't get into a good college, and ends up living in our basement for the rest of her life"? On and on it went. I became very reactive and my poor daughter already struggling, was worried that I was upset with her. I was forced to take a big step back. I was harming myself and my daughter with my behavior due to negative thinking.
I found a quiet place to just sit for a moment. The mornings are usually rushed and chaotic so slowing it down was key and something I rarely allow myself. I sat quietly, watched the trees blowing in the wind, tried to slow down my breathing, and be in the moment. It is not always easy to do this of course. Sitting and just watching nature outside was quite helpful and eventually, I was able to resettle myself to make better choices. But this definitely requires practice and work.
Here is where the internal processing and observation become very important….. it does get easier with time and as mentioned, practice (like everything else). You are not your thoughts and you don’t have to believe everything you think. Your mind has been conditioned over time - in both positive and negative ways. We absorb the voices and behaviors around us starting at a very young age and this can have a tremendous impact on our thinking and how we view ourselves. If we had parents that spoke negatively to us growing up, it can be more natural to speak negatively to ourselves. This might result in a guilt/shame spiral - and ultimately if kept unchecked, can cause disease. Both anxiety and depression states can involve a lot of negative, unchecked thinking patterns.
I should note that I am not a psychologist or medically trained professional. I am not trained to deal cognitively with people and their thinking. My main job as a yoga therapist is to listen to the challenges, concerns, and emotional states of my clients, and then prescribe yoga practices to help alleviate them. Applying yogic tools to alleviate a person’s suffering is my main objective. Yoga for difficult mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression can be very effective.
In the yoga tradition, this intense whirlwind of thinking is called “citta”. As noted in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (which is the preeminent book of yoga aphorisms and basically defines what we know of yoga today - I'm using the Mukunda Stiles translation), states: "yogah citta vritti nirodhah". This translates to "Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception".
Basically, this means that we have reached a yogic state when we can separate ourselves from our whirlwind of thoughts and perceptions. So if we know nothing else, the difficult thought loops are not just a modern problem. The Yoga Sutras are thousands of years old. Patanjali understood that this was a universal and challenging issue - and he believed that yoga could calm the vacillating waves of perception and it was necessary to do so to live well. This is one of the primary objectives of classical yoga - to calm and still the mind - preparing it for ultimate absorption into the divine or universal.
I think for modern purposes, this means understanding our true selves and therefore living better because of it. We use yogic mindfulness techniques to see ourselves from a much broader perspective - that there is much more to us than our thoughts and ultimately we can change our perspective and inner world, which can have a tremendous impact on how we conduct ourselves externally. We can know that underneath all the noise (both positive and negative) we are deeply connected to the universal and we are inherently good. There is a level of acceptance that comes with this perspective as well. That we can see and accept our thoughts as they are without placing too much judgment on them. In this way, we can become less attached to any particular state or outcome.
Simple meditations are a great place to start to begin cultivating a more quiet and equanimous mind. There are oodles of recordings of basic guided meditations on the internet and on apps these days. For those more open-minded about yoga’s lesser-known (or utilized broadly) practices, chanting can be a really powerful way to help clear the mind of negative thinking. Even the simple, most basic, and fundamental chant “Om”, can be very useful for this. If you find yourself in a negative thought whirlwind, find a comfortable seat, try to slow your breathing down, and chant “Om” to yourself 5 or 6 times and see if that helps quiet the mind. While chanting may seem a little less accessible, it really is quite simple and the effectiveness can be very astounding.
Even if we can take one step towards the idea that we are not our thoughts, and question them regularly (the ones that cause suffering anyway) this can be hugely beneficial. Further, if we spend time in contemplative practice, observing our thinking and emotions objectively and without judgment, we can make a lot of progress alleviating our own suffering. It is normal to have negative thoughts, but we don’t want to become absorbed by them. We can accept them for what they are, which are simply thoughts. They do not define us. That is the whole point.
You are so much more than your thinking - while they reflect your experiences of your life and those around you - you can and deserve to separate yourself from the negative thinking that causes you suffering. You deserve to feel calm and at peace in your body and mind. As my yoga teacher says, this is your birthright.
If you want more info on this - and other specific practices you can use to help with your negative thinking, please reach out to me! I also have a yoga newsletter called Yoga Notes you can subscribe to HERE if you want more info on yoga practices and other ideas on feeling better. :)