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Negative thoughts can trigger all sorts of negative responses in the body such as stress, depression and anxiety. Let's explore not only how to deal with repeating negative thoughts, but also how to break the thought pattern.
First, let's understand the cycle of thought patterns first. If we introspect, we see that thoughts arise. They come up from some unknown source. From a subconscious reservoir of tendencies, mental impressions or psychological imprints. These tendencies are already bubbling from within and can arise with or without external stimulation.
In yoga, these tendencies are called samskaras. And samskaras are the traces that are left in the subconscious mind by our past actions, past language and past thoughts. When these traces are repeated again and again, they become our tendencies. These tendencies bubble up and become conscious thought. The yogic term for this is called vritti, which means modifications of mind or mental modifications.
Imagine there is a bubble that comes up from the bottom of the lake. Once the bubble touches the surface of the lake it creates a ripple effect. The bubble is the samskara (tendency) and the ripple it creates on the surface of the lake is the vritti (thought).
The mind is like a lake. The ripple on the surface is a thought. A thought of desire, anger, resentment, guilt or memory. When we entertain a vritti for long enough, it embeds in the subconscious mind reservoir and becomes a samskara. And this becomes a cycle. The samskara (tendency) bubbles up as a vritti (thought). The vritti dwells on the surface of the mind. And when we entertain it, especially by expressing it in speech or action, it gets strengthened and sinks more deeply back into our subconscious reservoir of tendencies.
It may seem to go away from the mind after a while, but it never disappears. It goes back into the storehouse of tendencies where it strengthens the existing tendencies, or it creates a new one. And then this cycle of tendencies and mental modification, or the cycle of samskaras and vrittis, just goes on unceasingly day and night, in our waking moments and dreams.
Now because of the way we have led our lives, not carefully, not mindfully, a lot of negative stuff has gone into our minds. We are careful about the food we eat. We wouldn't go to a dumpster and eat rotten food. Our tummy would immediately be upset. But we do exactly that with our minds. We take things from the world indiscriminately. We dump things into our minds until it becomes a mental dumpster. So no wonder the mind is full of negativities.
So what do we do about this cycle of samskaras and vrittis that is continuously repeating? Normally, nothing. We don't do anything about it. We are like computers. As soon as the power is switched on, whatever has already been programmed into it will start running. Exactly like that, whatever is already programmed into us in the form of our samskaras will bubble up and be acted on. And we live our lives like that.Now, we don't have direct access to the samskaras, but we do have direct access to the vrittis. We can consciously change the mental modification (vritti) and thereby change the tendency (samskara). So as these vrittis or mental modifications come up to the conscious level we just become aware of it. And before it takes hold of us, before it becomes strong, before we act on it, we simply observe the thought. Observe without expressing it or acting on it. This is how we deal with negative thought patterns. Through simple observation, without giving any weight to the thought whatsoever.
By observing the thought, we create distance between us and the thought. We see that a thought is just a thought. That we are not the thought. The thought comes and goes. We don't come and go with the thought, which means we can't be our thoughts.
We simply allow all thoughts to come. We are just spectators. We need not control or stop the thoughts. We just watch them come and go. And with practice, our ability to remain impartial toward our thoughts will increase. Our ability to remain as an attentive watcher will increase. And when we begin to do this, the energy of our negative thoughts begin to weaken, which will weaken our reservoir of negative tendencies over time.
So, let's summarize how to deal with negative thoughts.
Step 1) The thought bubbles up from within, from this reservoir of tendencies.
Step 2) The thought comes into your awareness, your mind notices it.
Step 3) You observe the thought. You watch it. You know it's there. You don't get attached, label or identify with the thought. You just remain aware of it. You observe it.
Step 4) The thought stays for a while. But if you don't give in to it and remain an observer, it automatically goes away. And then it weakens that tendency or that samskara.
Step 5) If you entertain that thought and it causes you to feel a certain emotion like stress, then you go back to step three. And you keep repeating until you have stopped identifying with that thought.
Also, just as it's important to put a space between you and the thought so that you can observe it without having any reaction to it, the same applies to feelings and emotions. Remind yourself that whatever negative emotion you feel, it's totally fine. The emotion is simply a reflection of your thought or belief. So it's the same process. Follow exactly the same steps.
By following these steps, slowly, we can reprogram, change our mental conditionings and tendencies. It is simple. But not easy. From my own personal experience, a calm mind is a necessity for practicing these steps. If the mind is not a little calm, it is difficult to be introspective. What is more likely to happen is that, before you know it, these negative tendencies have bubbled up and taken over the mind before you even became aware of it. This is the program that is running on autopilot in so many of us.
In the Bhagvad Gita it says, "The mind alone, is your worst enemy, and is your best friend." So the uncontrolled mind is your worst enemy. And the controlled mind is your best friend.
Have patience with yourself as you practice these steps. This is a completely new way of using your mind and it will take practice. Be easy on yourself. If you would like to practice using your mind in this new way, join us for our weekly meditation session over zoom.