"Mind is everything. What we think, we become." -- Buddha
Whether by virtue of our self-imposed stress, propensity for self-blame or the scarcity mentality that keeps us from connecting with our gratitude, negative thinking can be a significant obstacle to our personal development and emotional well-being. Escaping the thrall of our negative thoughts is not simply a matter of putting a brave face on things. Positivity doesn't just happen -- it's created and as we are the architects of our own reality, that creation is in our hands.
The initial challenge here is to get past the evolutionary and social obstacles that foster our trepidation. On the one hand, we are hardwired to be aware of potential threats in the environment. While we generally no longer have to concern ourselves with the possibility of immediate threats to our survival, like saber-tooth tigers, that primal psychological predisposition remains. Further, our social propensity to assess worst case scenarios that likely is informed by this evolutionary tendency -- and prompts industries like insurance, reinsurance, and risk management -- fosters our sense that something bad is likely just over the horizon. The thinking that keeps us rattling around this prison of negativity, however, is the same thinking that can foster our freedom.
The first of several practices for getting past our negative thoughts is to simply not believe what we think. If we identify, or over-identify, with our thoughts, they start having us, rather than us having them. Holding fast to a particular negative belief or belief system, we not only limit ourselves, but mire ourselves in that negativity. For example, should we operate with a poverty mentality, we paralyze ourselves into thinking we will never have enough. Taking a moment to recognize what we do have and then acting to further cultivate that breaks us out of this cycle of negativity. Knowledge is in the thinking; wisdom is in the doing.
It can also serve us to question our reality. When confronted with a negative thought we can take time to ask ourselves three things: "Is it reasonable? Is it rational? Is it reliable?"
Establishing the reasonableness of a thought helps us get some perspective. There is such a thing as a reasonable level of anxiety. When that anxiety blooms into a full-fledged panic simply because we don't know what's going to happen, then we've likely stepped outside the bounds of that reasonableness.
Next, we need to establish if our thinking is rational. If, for example, we are struggling to make ends meet every month, but the bills are still getting paid, it's probably not rational to be sitting up for the better part of the night fretting over losing the house or having the car repossessed. If, however, we find ourselves in a place where the bills really aren't getting paid and our concerns are reasonable, we need to point our rational response at what comes next, rather than creating more internal conflict by fretting over something we may not be able to control.
Finally, we can explore if the thought is reliable. Has it happened before with any degree of consistency? If the answer is no, then it's quite likely we're making up a story, rather than responding to a potential.
Another helpful means for sorting out our negative thinking is unpacking our feelings. When our psychophysiological response to a situation passes through the filter of our worldview -- our subjective assumptions, expectations and ideas about the way the world works -- we experience a conscious feeling. The quality of that feeling is determined by what we are thinking about the situation. For example, if two people are standing at the top of a roller coaster one may be feeling excited, while the other is feeling fearful. Both are experiencing a relatively similar physiological response, but for one that translates into a feeling of anticipation, while for the other it translates into a feeling of apprehension. The difference between the two is how each person is thinking about the experience before them.
Unpacking our feelings can lead us back to the source of our experience and, once we identify what we're thinking about that experience, we can ask a very simple question: "Why?" What is it about roller coasters that make me fearful or excited? What is it about the envelopes with the little windows or the phone ringing that makes me anxious? Once we find the source, we can label it and then, using a technique similar to one found in insight meditation, release it because in identifying the thought, we now control it. It no longer controls us.
An additional technique for releasing negative thinking is to ask ourselves, "What's the worst possible thing that could happen?" This kind of extreme perspective serves as a foil, giving us a more realistic view of what's actually in front of us. Scripting a scenario that plays to our greatest anxieties, fears and negativities allows us a certain relativism that can take the charge out of our experience, making it more manageable.
Once we've employed these various techniques for shepherding our thoughts, we need to find a means for keeping them corralled. Meditation provides a small scale parallel to the larger enterprise of defusing negative thinking by teaching us to effectively manage the random thoughts interfering with mindfulness. Journaling prompts us to slow down and develop a more balanced sensibility around our larger picture, engaging all of our faculties and senses in organizing our thoughts. Exercise releases endorphins, calming and centering us, which allows us to think more clearly and with greater acuity.
Whichever of these techniques we may choose to employ, our primary focus is on creating a shift of mind that takes us out of our negative headspace and into one that is more positive, or, at least, balanced. We create our experience by virtue of how we are thinking about a particular situation, good, bad or indifferent. What's important to bear in mind is that if we can think ourselves in, we can always think ourselves out.