I am sometimes distressed by uncomfortable thoughts and memories. I know some people who have it worse than me, dominated by random associative memory functioning leading to useless suffering and guilt. Likewise, I know people who have improved their ‘inner lives’ through practice and energy, and as a result the quality of their lives have dramatically improved.
I believe I spoke about this weeks ago in regards to ‘thinking in the shower’, but I wanted to put together something more practical, a kind of structured, mental life-preserver that could help you drag yourself out of the mire of negative, automatic thought patterns.
So lets say, you ‘wake up’ into yourself and find you are suffering in a dream world of your memories while your body chugs away at some automatic, semi-conscious task. A common reaction is to ‘fight’ against your memories, which prompts the dual-affliction of feeding into something you hate, as well as denying and trying to cut off a part of yourself (our memories are as physically tangible as our blood, speaking from a neuroanatomical perspective). Instead of starting a war with the wandering mind, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
– Did I choose to think this?
Ask yourself if you willfully chose to engage in this memory. Is it something you wanted to do, or something that happened by itself? Judgment can be completely independent of this answer. Just a simple yes or no.
– How am I experiencing this thought?
How is this memory being constructed by your imagination? Is it chiefly visual, within your mind’s eye? Are you hearing conversations you participated in long ago? Or perhaps there is no specific situational memory that is being experienced and it is just a general feeling of doubt or unease. Be specific when you come up with this answer.
– Have I ‘fallen asleep’ into this memory?
Have you become identified with your past-self within the memory? What I mean by this is: are you no longer observing the memory and have begun participating in it as if it is happening all over again? Becoming emotionally involved, reforming arguments and thinking of new things to say to the ego projection of a person you spoke to in the past, are all signs of identification with a memory.
– Why am I thinking about this? What’s the outcome?
Whether or not you chose to engage in this memory, can any practical purpose now come of it? Were you trying to remember the qualities of a person you haven’t seen for a while? Or retracing your steps because you lost something? Perhaps a sudden inspiration hit you for an idea to design your living room. Again, no judgment needs to come into play, there is either a practical application to this thinking, or there is not.
– When did I start thinking about this? What triggered this memory?
Try to identify the experience or memory that you associated this present thought with. And how long have you been thinking about this memory? Or, if there was no trigger and the memory came entirely out of ‘nowhere’, then note that.
– I wonder what my next thought will be…
Ask yourself what you think your next thought will be after your mind has finished replaying this experience for you (be sure to thank your mind for whatever it gives you, like a cat that gifts you a dead bird – while the bird itself is repugnant, the intentions of the cat are friendly). This exercise can help break up the cycle of thinking, and rethinking the same thought.