San Francisco gridlock. While some choose to sit idling behind the wheel in the 3rd worst traffic congestion in the nation, I read. My two hour commute allows me to read a lot of books. Riding the BART on the way to welcome in the new year at 111 Minna Gallery, my eyes were racing to finish the last pages of book 57, T.C Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done.
Last year I failed at the act of practicing gratitude. From my 1,000 mile objective the prior year, I know that I am successful when there are increments to track forward progress. I didn’t journal or write gratitude poems, so the habit or mindfulness acts did not work themselves into muscle memory. Hindsight being 20/20, there are some things I wish I would have implemented to be more successful, but let’s catch up with where I am currently with my emotions and well-being.
Today I emerged from a fog. Maybe influenced by La La Land’s musicality, I basically skipped from the kiss and ride to board the train. The janitor and I exchanged morning pleasantries, and the uplifting power of a sincere “Good Morning” greeting from the stranger was like a five hour energy drink.
It was the first time in several months I have felt happy. Bouncy happy as if I were the Wal-Mart smiley face logo. There was no rolling of the eyes nor muttering commentary on my pedestrian encounters thickened with my self righteousness: “Cough, geez do you have to light up your joint at 8:00 in the morning; run, run, ha, run to the train, I’m not going to be on somebody else’s schedule; hey distracted, stop walking down the stairs while looking at your phone; could your Bollywood techno music be any louder; I know you’re a man and don’t like to stand or wait behind a woman, so go ahead get in front of me.” And personally, I wasn’t beating myself up about my position in life: not owning a home, no children yet at halfway to 40, and not making a six figure salary.
Where did these sour thoughts originate? How to curb the negativity?
Buddha said, “What you think, you become.” I would rather be what I ate than thought, like some baked granola and yogurt with blueberries right now or yesterday a burrito. How much do our thoughts inform our behavior, our relationships, or our success? Reminds me of this podcast “Dark Thoughts” produced by Invisibilia about a guy who could not stop thinking about stabbing his wife. The man (call him S) saw a therapist who was so freaked out by S’s thoughts, his next appointment was cancelled. The next therapist S saw challenged him to hold a knife to his throat. This form of therapy sometimes called third wave therapy teaches us better mindfulness to let go of our thoughts. The focus is on thought process and not content. In other words thoughts are just random synapses firing so we shouldn’t over think them. Maybe some thoughts need to be analyzed in a Freudian manner but not all. Not every thought is connected to something in our subconscious or past. Agree?
It is normal for humans to have negative thoughts. We are constantly scanning our environment for threats and problems. This adaptation allows us to react and respond quickly to a crises. Mindfulness practitioners say the trick is to let these distracting thoughts float away and not ruminate on them. By being mindful of the bad thought, we can start to change the pattern and cycle of negativity.
In contrast, cognitive behavioral psychologists and therapists advise patients to accept bad thoughts and question them with a Socratic approach. A study of 55 patients at the Ohio State Depression and Research Clinic found patients reporting improvements in depression using Socratic questioning. Feeling unloved, than write a list of people who love you. Feeling like a loser with no accomplishments, ask yourself “What did I accomplish this week?”
Socratic Questioning for Negative Thoughts:
- What could be assumed instead?
- What alternatives are there?
- What evidence is there otherwise?
“Neurons that fire together wire together.”– Donald Hebb
There is another class of thought on neurons that believes thoughts release chemicals. These chemicals are positive or negative messages feeding the body. So you really are what you eat.
I am going to keep a journal for five days of my thoughts every hour and try practicing both behaviors above.
If you’re wondering, S was eventually able to hold the knife to both his therapist and wife’s throats and let the bad thought melt away. Ever since the killing thoughts have ebbed.