When I read books, listen to podcasts, Ted Talks and even when I’m sitting with my patients, I am stimulated. It is in those moments when I take in, that my mind expands and constructs new ideas or expands on old ones. This blog post was inspired by my second perusal of Jack Kornfield’s 2008 book on Buddhist psychology, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal teachings of Buddhist Psychology. It’s Mindfulness with a whole lot more.
I often sit with someone and help them ‘turn away’ from their negative thought patterns. This is particularly salient when working with a concrete exercise like the 3-circle plan, a concept drawn from addiction treatment. It involves drawing out 3 circles, kind of like an archery board, with the intent to change some destructive behavior patterns.
The methodology behind it is simple yet powerful . . . if our triggers, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in the yellow (center) circle, can lead us down a negative self-destructive path (the red circle) then wouldn’t we be better off heading into a healthy direction (the green circle) instead. In fact, in the exercise the red circle is small and the green circle, the outermost of the three, is the largest, indicating that with the largest surface area we need to procure and maintain a myriad of choices in which to reach and frankly, most healthy people do.
That is, it is those with the chronic mental health issues that resort to the same destructive coping skills over and over (aka red circle behaviors) and, on the flip side, the healthier individual that has many options and utilizes them—because we all need a place to turn to for the times when we are in pain.
In the yellow circle, there exist those behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that lead us into the red. They might be things like loneliness, feelings of abandonment, thoughts of worthlessness or images of a distressing fantasy; they might also be behaviors like being online albeit with something benign. It is the intangible, the thoughts and feelings that are more difficult to stop as they slyly slip into our consciousness. It is with these I offer two solutions . . . the top-down work (management strategies to curtail the acting on them) and bottom-up work (the dive into the pain points that drive them).
With the top-down work, we identify, label and attempt to not act, however, one thing that many don’t realize is that we can’t stop our thoughts and emotions from entering our conscious awareness. Yet while we are unable to stop the process completely, we can turn away from them, weaken them, not feed the dragon and they will slowly subside.
Cognitive-behavior therapy in the West has thought us thought-stopping and switching and, in the recent decade, mindfulness, which is to become consciously aware and turn away to something more pleasant. Western behavior and cognitive-behavior therapy, in the like of Beck, Meichenbaum, Ellis, teach us to gain awareness and consciously change our inner dialogue, a technique that can be useful for some forms of psychiatric symptomology like anxiety, panic or phobias. There is also exposure with and with-out response prevention, systematic desensitization and more.
Buddhist psychology, emanating from the East, goes deeper. It offers us more than “purely rational replacement of inaccurate thought patterns . . .,It is behaviorism with a heart.”
According to Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., Buddhist Psychologist, ridding ourself of suffering from distressing beliefs is not simply a process of thought stopping and switching but with the use of Buddhist principles and paradigms as the end game, we seek to “transform our thoughts as a loving protection of ourselves and others . . what we repeatedly think shapes our world. . . out of compassion, substitute healthy thoughts for unhealthy ones.”
Kornfield says that “the Buddhist perspective takes the process further. We can learn to see that a distorted thought based on self-hatred, aggression, revenge, and greed is not in our genuine interest. We can see that these thoughts do not have our well-being in mind.”
We cannot stop our thoughts from coming. . “greed, anger, hatred, worry are not an integral part of our mind which cannot be changed” says the Dalai Lama.
Tibetan Lama Khyentse Rinpoche said “the mind creates both samsara and nirvana. Yet there is not much to it, it is just thoughts. Once we recognize that thoughts are empty, the mind will no longer have the power to deceive us” yes according to Kornfield, sometimes, “however much we try, sometimes we’re caught in our repetitive thoughts, and knowing about their emptiness doesn’t help”.
Buddhist psychology utilizes mindfulness, meditation, visualization and the practice of loving-kindness and when the thoughts are bigger and more powerful they resort to a practice of being silent and still as a way to feel, notice and practice these things.
In the end.. we cannot stop our thoughts we can only weaken them. When we turn away and don’t feed the dragon they weaken and we see we no longer need them.
This article has been repurposed to the blog at sexandrelationshiphealing.com.