Updated: Jul 5, 2020
I have written about the essence of the spiritual path, and how to be kind to ourselves by learning how to deal with difficult emotions. Next we want to see how to deal with the difficult thoughts that are often our reactions to difficult emotions.
When we are in the state of what I am calling our ordinary selves - or, as they are called in some traditions, our egos, or ego-selves - our minds can be very reactive. We not only may be experiencing distressing emotions, but on top of that we may notice that our minds add another level of upset by the way in which we are thinking about our feelings. These ego-reactive thoughts can often be just as painful to us as the original feelings to which they are a reaction. I will describe two types of ego-reactive thoughts we may have - there are actually many more, of course - and then suggest ways to deal with them.
We all carry around inside us an inner critic or inner judge - what in psychoanalysis we call a super-ego - which is the internalized version of all the judgments we received from our families, or society, when we were young. This super-ego is a necessary part of our growing up. It tells us when we are good or bad, or when we have done a good or a bad act, and this helps guide us to become responsible adults.
However - and this is a big however - what many of us do not appreciate it is that when we are on a spiritual path, the super-ego becomes less and less important, and ultimately may not be necessary at all. This is because we all carry inside us, as an aspect of our real selves, an inner spiritual gyroscope which guides our actions - an intuitive sense of what is right - that is separate from our inner judge.
Of course it may takes us quite a while - often years - before we are able to connect to this real self and its accompanying inner spiritual gyroscope. But in the meantime, a great deal of our spiritual practice for many years may include learning to disregard, not take seriously, or reject the judgments of the super-ego.
A great deal of this work consists of our learning that on the deepest level, there is no such thing as a "bad thought" or a "bad feeling." Our thoughts and feelings are separate from our actions, and need not be acted upon. In themselves they hurt no one. The more spiritually mature we become, the more we realize the importance of letting ourselves have any thoughts or feelings that may arise, without judging ourselves. This contributes to the inner feeling of self-acceptance that is such a crucial aspect of our growth and maturation.
Another trick our ego-minds may play on us is what is called catastrophizing. This consists of thinking about the future, and imagining the worst. Like the inner critic in our lives, this process is not without benefit. Obviously it is useful at times to anticipate the worst in our lives, so that we may make our preparations to deal with it. But in catastrophizing this anticipattion becomes a habit, becomes our automatic go-to thinking whenever we are dealing with a difficult situation or feeling, and further contributes to unnecessary unhappiness.
Counteracting Difficult Thoughts
So how may we learn to deal skillfully with our ego-reactive minds? I suggest a three-step process that I call "The Three S's."
The first step is the most obvious, but by no means the easiest. We simply see what is going on. If a super-ego thought arises, judging us as bad for a thought or feeling, we simply notice that it is the super-ego, the inner critic. If we are convinced that a terrible future lies before us, we simpy see that we are catastrophizing. We see what is going on, and we name it for what it is.
You would think that this initial process in working with our thoughts is ridiculously easy - but it isn't. This is because all of us are capable of having thoughts without realizing what they are. So an important part of working with ourselves becomes simply seeing what's going on.
The next step is stopping. By this I don't mean that we try to prevent ourselves from having the thought in the first place. This is an ability that we are not capable of as humans - nor do we need to be. We don't stop the thought from arising. But we do stop ourselves from continuing it, from following it, from focusing on it or from dwelling on it. We don't "get on that train," as some teachers have suggested. We do this by shifting out attention away from the thought, even for a moment. And this is something we are all able to do.
For some of us steps (1) and (2) may be sufficient. But for many of us, the original thought is so sticky, so magnetic, that we may keep getting pulled back to it in spite of ourselves. So what can help is to shift our attention to something positive, each time the negative thought arises.
As we work with this process of The Three S's, two things are important to remember. First, it requires constant repetition to work. We are dealing with dysfunctional mental habits, and habits have a tendency to persist. We must practice this process again and again, even, if the thoughts are persistent, several times an hour.
Second, this is a long process. It is an important part of our spiritual practice, and it often may take years to develop the positive mental habits that can contribute to our happiness.
And third - it works! I can tell you this from personal experience. So - don't give up!
Till next time -