Disclaimer: I am not a trained therapist. These views and exercises are a variation of ones found in Russ Harris’ ‘Happiness Trap’. They are not meant to be an in-exhaustive list of curative exercises, but simply a taster. If you are currently suffering, or think you are suffering, from a mental disorder, talk to someone you trust and make a visit to your GP. If you are in a crisis, dial 999.
‘Just don’t think about it.’
An offhand remark. But it’s something we cannot do.
We all do it sometimes. We’ve gotten to a point where we’re talking to someone, they’re complaining, and we just want to say ‘don’t worry about it’ or ‘don’t think about it’. Whilst short term bursts of ‘not thinking’ work to a degree, they are of long term detriment to the mind. The simple issue is, we can’t ‘not’ think. Thinking is perpetual. But what kind of thinking do I mean?
The mind, is complex. We know this. But as of the last century, the western attitude towards the mind focuses mainly on the mind as a whole. As in, the mind is a reflection of our inner monologue. It is all encompassing and controlled by us. But looking at Eastern interpretations, we have the duality of the mind. We have the thinking mind and the observing mind. This may be hard to understand, but seeing the mind in a two way faculty it is a great way for us to distance ourselves from unhelpful thoughts. By unhelpful I don’t mean ‘negative’ ones such as sadness or anger, but thoughts that aren’t useful to us in the present moment. Sadness, when grieving, is an essential part of healing, for example. Context is key, but our western mindset pushes our thoughts and feelings into constricted notions of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’.
So what is this two way model? The best way I can help you understand is with an exercise:
Close your eyes. As you take in a breath, focus in your mind where your thoughts are emerging from. Do they begin in the centre, of to the side, in the bottom left corner? What do they consist of? Are they images? Sounds? Continue to breath deeply. As these thoughts emerge, do not block them. See where they are in the mind. Observe them, as you continue to breathe. Continue this for up to around 10 breaths.
So what should have happened is that your observing mind notices that your thinking mind continues to rabble on even without your direct involvement. In a way you are understanding that your thoughts are simply a process of your mind. They aren’t your inner monologue. It may sound like you, but it is simply an utterance of the environment around you. It prepares you for threats. It judges. It keeps you alive. But you don’t have to listen to it. Your observing mind can choose whether or not to engage with these thoughts. To do this, we can diffuse whenever we’re deep in a difficult thought that might not be useful to us:
Notice your thought. Your thinking self may be telling you that your work today is not acceptable; as if you’re no good. Do not focus on its content, it does not matter. Say to yourself: ‘I am having the thought that I am inept’. By acknowledging the monologue as a thought, not as a true reflection of reality, you can diffuse yourself from it. You have the power to do then whatever you wish.
I cannot go into full detail here the philosophy and the finer details of this model of thought. I suffer from an array of mental issues and this form of therapy has been crucial for the persistence of my well-being. It is in no way perfect, and if it doesn’t work for you, then that’s okay too. It is simply a tool, not a cure. The cure, as cliche as it may sound, is yourself.
Thoughts aren’t you. Remember that.
For more information on ACT see Russ Harris, ‘The Happiness Trap : Stop Struggling, Start Living’, (2007).