Get Unstuck: Part one
An Introduction to thought watching meditation
Three Mistakes that Get Us Stuck
Mistake #1: We believe our thoughts
Here are some examples:
Thoughts: You aren’t good enough.
Me: I feel inadequate.
Thoughts: You made a bad mistake.
Me: I am so ashamed.
Thoughts: Something terrible is about to happen.
Me: I’m scared.
Thoughts: That person really doesn't like you.
Me: I feel rejected.
Thoughts: They should not have done that!
Me: I am angry!
Thoughts: Why is this taking so long?!
Me: This is so frustrating!
Believing everything your thoughts say is not a good idea because sometimes thoughts can say pretty nasty things, or things that aren’t true, or things that are true but are not what you need to hear in the moment.
Mistake #2: We fight our thoughts
Here is a hypothetical (though not unrealistic) argument with my thoughts:
Thoughts: You aren’t good enough.
Me: Yes I am. I can think of at last three good things I’ve done in this lifetime.
Thoughts: You didn’t do all that great a job of those.
Me: But so and so said I did.
Thoughts: And you believe them? Even if you did do a good job at those things, that’s only good luck. You’ve made so many other mistakes.
Arguing with your thoughts is not a good idea because thoughts are stubborn. And persistent. And smart. And when you argue with your thoughts, they argue back.
Even IF you do manage to win an argument with your thoughts and determine that, logically speaking, you have every reason to feel happy, grateful, and confident, this knowledge won't necessarily translate to the way you feel.
Mistake #3: We escape our thoughts
Here’s how this looks:
Thoughts: You aren’t good enough/ Something bad is gonna happen/ That person doesn't like you/ They shouldn’t have done that...
Me: I’ll just do something else.
I pull out my phone, scroll through social media, kill time on the internet, and before I know it four hours have passed, it’s after midnight, and I don't know how I’ll wake up on time tomorrow morning. And all the while, underneath the distraction, I have a gnawing feeling that something isn’t right.
Sooo...when we believe our thoughts, we are moody and easily discouraged. When we fight our thoughts, we lock ourselves in an argument we can't win. When we distract ourselves from our thoughts, we feel cut off from the areas of our lives that most matter to us.
It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.
The good news: There is another way
The Fail-Safe Way to Get Unstuck
In thought watching meditation, rather than trying to change our thoughts, we change our relationship with our thoughts. We don't try to “think positive”, identify “cognitive distortions”, or disprove negative thinking (though these techniques are used in some forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy, and can be quite effective). We also don't try to stop thinking (a common misconception around meditation). Instead, we hold our thoughts in a compassionate way. We gain ownership of our thoughts, instead of being controlled by them.
What does this mean and how does it help?
The best way to understand this is through experiencing it — which is what we’ll do in the upcoming parts of this series.
For now, I will give an analogy:
For a number of years, I taught young children. One day, as I was bringing my students in from the playground, one little boy had a meltdown. He slumped onto the ground (hence the term meltdown), and began crying “I want to stay outside longer! We hardly got to play at all!”
Now, were I to have gotten caught up in the content of what he was saying, I may have negotiated and said “I’ll give you another five minutes, and then it’s really time to go inside”. Or, I might have argued with him “What do you mean ‘we hardly got to play at all’?! We have already been outside for twenty minutes! We have so much we need to learn today.”
I did not take these approaches because both would only have fueled his upset — either by teaching him that if he cries and complains he’ll get more playtime, or by invalidating his feelings. Instead I gently held his hand and said “You really want to play for longer”. And as I said that, I continued walking back into school together with him. I validated his feelings, while helping him stay on task. The little boy quickly calmed down when he saw that I was calm and felt that he had been held and heard. We were able to continue with the day’s schedule as planned.
Thought watching meditation helps us relate to our thoughts in the same way. Rather than believing, arguing or distracting ourselves from our thoughts, we acknowledge them in a compassionate way while continuing to pursue our goals and dreams.
For example, oftentimes while writing content for this website, I have thoughts that say things like “you just made a mistake. This will never come out good”, or “Nobody is going to see what you create, so why bother?”. When I get caught up in these thoughts and begin to question whether my work is “good enough”, or worth the effort (and I will not lie, there are times when I do), my motivation wears thinner and it becomes difficult to create. Were I to get caught up in these thoughts for an extended period of time, I might even decide to quit writing altogether (this I don't do, because I am exceptionally stubborn). When I apply the skills I’ve practiced through thought watching meditation, I simply acknowledge “I am feeling self doubt right now”. I notice the thought, validate it, and continue creating.
As it turns out, thoughts are not all that powerful when we don't lose ourselves in them.
In the moments when we have negative or self-defeating thoughts, it can be difficult to relate to them in a compassionate, non-reactive way. The formal practice of thought watching meditation strengthens this skill so that we can use it when we most need it. There are a number of different approaches to thought watching, all of which achieve the same goal. Most people resonate more with some than others. In each of the following parts of this series, I will guide you through a different thought watching meditation. I recommend you try them all, find the one that works best for you, and practice it regularly.
Mindfulness is a muscle. When you follow a guided practice daily, you will find yourself better able to use it when negative thought patterns are triggered.
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