When ‘negative’ or distressing thoughts arise, or when our thoughts start becoming agitated or speeded up, then this is always because of some sort of ‘inner pain’ that we are not directly aware of. This is always the case – the negative or racing thoughts are a symptom of the underlying pain, just like a high temperature or a cough is a symptom of the flu. The reason we can say that we’re not ‘directly aware’ of the inner pain when we’re thinking excessively is because the thinking process is essentially a distraction from the pain – this is its true function, even though it claims to be more than this. Thought makes the claim (either explicitly or implicitly) do be ‘doing something about the pain’ but this is simply not the case.
This means that we can look at the negative or racing thoughts as an indicator which serve the valuable function of telling us about this inner pain (rather than being a distraction from it). It doesn’t matter what the actual ‘content’ of the thought is (i.e. what it is saying) – the only important thing about the thought is that it is telling us that we are in pain. That’s all we need to pay attention to. There is no point trying to fix or correct the symptom if we are ignoring the underlying cause – that is just a red herring.
Usually when these distressing thoughts arise we get caught up in them, we get sucked into whatever story they are telling us. We get preoccupied with the symptoms – we take them at ‘face value’ and react accordingly. The face value (or ‘nominal’) meaning for the thoughts is not the important thing however, and if we do get taking it seriously all that happens as a result is that we go around in pointless circles, feeling worse and worse the longer it goes on. This is what happens when we ‘buy into the distraction’.
‘Negative’ or racing thoughts are really only telling us that we are in pain. It’s only pain, and pain is something we know and understand. The helpful thing to do therefore is take them as useful indicators that we need to tune into ourselves and see how we feel inside. As we have said, the actual ‘content’ of the thoughts is not helpful to tune into – in fact taking notice of the contents of the thought is the opposite of helpful because it just perpetuates the pain, whilst at the same time allowing us to believe that we are actually ‘getting somewhere’ by buying into what the thinking itself is telling us.
As soon as we become aware of the thoughts we simply take the time to check in with ourselves and notice the pain there, in whatever form it takes. All we have to do is just see it there, acknowledge that it is there, give it the space to be there. This is NOT buying into the distraction! Even if we only spend a few minutes doing this it is helpful because it takes the energy out of the agitated or negative thinking. Taking notice of what the thinking is telling us – on the other hand – puts energy into the thinking. Trying to squash or control the thinking also puts energy into them. As Chogyam Trungpa says,
When you relate to thoughts obsessively, you are actually feeding them because thoughts need your attention to survive. Once you begin to pay attention to them and categorize them, then they become very powerful. You are feeding them energy because you are not seeing them as simple phenomena. If one tries to quiet them down, that is another way of feeding them.
We’re not relating to the thoughts here therefore – we’re relating to the pain that they are masking. We’re not trying to enter into any special type of relationship (either ‘for’ or ‘against’) with our thoughts – what we are doing is establishing an honest relationship with our pain. All we doing with the pain is acknowledging that it’s there. We are establishing a basic relationship with it, rather than running away from it or being ‘aggressive’ with it.
The thoughts that we are having are telling us something, they’re telling us that we are in some sort of pain. We don’t have to literally believe what the thoughts are saying, we just to understand where they are coming from. The fact that the thinking is happening is a sign of our underlying distress – we don’t have to get caught up in the story that our thoughts are busy telling us, we just have to notice that the thinking is happening, that it’s going on, and appreciate that this is telling us something. We can in other words use the fact that the thinking is happening as a prompt to remind us to ‘check in’ with ourselves and ‘tune in’ to the pain.
Tuning into pain doesn’t sound like much fun it’s true, but actually it comes as a relief. Running away from pain means running away from ourselves – we lose track of ourselves, we lose track of what we are doing and why. We become coreless and scattered. We become confused, agitated and at odds with ourselves. We become pointlessly driven, pointlessly compulsive. Our attention gets consumed by the thinking, so that the thinking controls everything about us. The thinking process blazes unchecked like a run-away forest fire, and our ‘free attention’ (i.e. our actual autonomous awareness) gets completely eaten up.
When we stop running (or fighting) and keep returning to the pain – gently and without judgment – then we come back to ourselves. We’re no longer scattered or driven or agitated and so although the pain is still there we don’t have the pain of having ‘lost ourselves’ to it. The pain that we’re tuning into can actually give us something therefore – it can give us back our connection with ourselves, it can help us come back to ourselves and recover our precious autonomy.
Autonomy in this context simply means that we are no longer being dragged this way and that – we are no longer being controlled by our thinking. We are no longer being fed propaganda stories by our thinking. We are no longer in the distressing situation of being ‘run ragged’ by our thinking – which is what always happens when we try to either control the pain or run away from it rather than honestly relating to it. We’ll never succeed in either – all we will do is turn ourselves into the helpless exhausted puppet of the thinking process, which always promises to help us (or give us some kind of advantage) but which never does…