Why do we get negative thoughts and what can we do about them?
Thoughts are an integral part of the ecosystem of the mind, playing an essential role in determining the qualitative aspects of that space. They dictate whether the mind is peaceful, quiet, noisy or disturbed. Thoughts are beyond the conscious reach of the senses, yet there is something within us that perceives them. That perceptive ability superseding our eyes and ears can quickly decipher the contents of our thoughts. This happens in real time, and our thoughts feed us contextual information from the past as well as ongoing interpretative information of the present. When we add in the flavor of time, place, interpretation and context to sensory information, we get a rich and granular experience. All of these mental experiences are on the spectrum of negativity to positivity. Much of our inner struggle is in trying to shrug off negative thoughts and not being influenced by their contents.
In the mind, we are quick to arrive at conclusions using the information in our thoughts, and we rarely reserve judgment to see how the experience fits into the broader context of life. These conclusions are somewhere on the spectrum that goes from net negative to net positive. The ‘happiness gauge’ closely follows our findings. A thought may be interpreted as negative on the surface, but there may be an underlying positivity to them and vice versa. In most human experiences there may be a silver lining, especially the mundane day to day ones. It is important to put those experiences in the right context before we conclude whether they are positive or negative. This takes time, and such introspective reflection is the foundation of inner growth. We are on the right track when we find that faults lie within and not outside.
The greater context may be evident in some of life’s experiences, but in others, it may not be so apparent. It is up to us to connect the dots concerning significant milestones in our life. This is an important ‘mental assignment,’ if done correctly it puts everything in the right perspective. It then becomes easier to move on from experiences, and as a result, the past will not become a burden as we move forward with time. However, the mind may behave as an obstructionist and may pose challenges as we get through such an exercise.
The sheer volume of information and experiences prevents us from sifting amongst them and filtering similar thoughts through the multilayered filter of perspective. We tend to choose a quicker and easier way that of assigning labels, such as “I like this” or “I dislike this,” to our thoughts. We don’t fully live out our thoughts and experiences at the moment they come through; consequently, there is incompleteness. This partial engagement of thoughts and experiences justifies their continued stay in our memory. From the storehouse of memory, thoughts keep coming back to us as unfinished homework. Overwhelmed by the immense burden of such unfinished work, we often choose the path of fighting them. This creates friction in the mind. Those thoughts which we perceive as positive we place at the front of the queue and the negative ones we try to push to the back of the line in order to alleviate mental friction.
When an experience generated by thoughts is interpreted as positive and highly enjoyable, it is easy to become thoroughly identified with such an experience. With positive ones, we are highly impressionable. When there is a union of awareness as the experiencer of happiness and the experience of joy, there is a tangible sense of wellbeing in the body and the mind. However, such happiness is temporary as it is primarily dependent on the continued presence of thoughts suitable to the positive experience.
On the contrary, when the experience is interpreted as negative and unenjoyable, we seek to steer clear from such experiences. We keep the awareness as the experiencer at a distance from the experience of unhappiness as we try to move away quickly and permanently towards a happier place in our mind. But when we identify with misery as “my misery,” we gravitate towards suffering. We also forget that awareness may mitigate suffering when it is neutral. Once we identify with the contents of thoughts as misery-producing, we cannot easily peel away awareness and point it elsewhere. If this was so effortless and easy to achieve, happiness could be at hand as if it is a flick of a switch. But that is not the case in real life. When we identify with thoughts which are misery-inducing, we are forced to remain close to them.
In happiness, the ‘I’ can temporarily disappear. In misery, ‘I’ is amplified. It is easier to observe ourselves, from a third person perspective, when we are miserable as opposed to when we are happy. Unlike positive and enjoyable thoughts, we do not seek to replicate the experience of negative and unhappy thoughts. When we observe such thoughts without reacting to them, we enhance the separation between the experience of misery and the awareness as the experiencer (us). As this gap widens, and we jump towards awareness rather than experiences, we will continue to build inner strength to deal with life’s unpredictable challenges.
There is one major requirement to foster awareness as the experiencer. That is for us to remain watchful. We cannot witness in a neutral watchful state unless we give up the feelings of ‘my thoughts’ or ‘my experiences.’ The feeling we get when a 100 dollar bill that is in our pocket is torn into pieces versus a similar thing happening to a stranger is very different. The two currency notes may be identical, but the note we consider as ours evokes emotion when destroyed. Thoughts are similar to those dollar bills in this example. When ‘my’ is involved, there are strong feelings and emotions. When we help someone with ‘their thoughts and misery,’ it is easy not to entertain strong personal feelings or emotions. This is not the case when we are dealing with our own inner issues. Everyone is selfish in this regard.
By approaching thoughts for what they are, as holders of information, they become less personal, and emotions associated with them diminish. Perhaps as the vehicles that hold the information, the basic framework of thoughts is the same. But the passengers, which is the information contained within them, differ, just as taxi cabs may all look similar from a distance, with the same exterior color, the same roof light, etc., but the passengers within aren't similar. Moreover, people get on and off constantly without feeling a sense of ownership over the taxicab in which they may travel. Similarly, the contents of our thoughts come and go, but the container which is the energy that holds and transports those contents remain the same. Just as there is no attachment between a wallet and the credit cards it contains, there is no attachment between the energy that holds a thought together and the contents that are within.
Everything that is presented on the mind’s screen is encapsulated within the energetic boundaries of thoughts. Within each thought, there is a nucleus which is linked to the ‘I.’ Packets of information revolve around this nucleus. When this nucleus disappears, the information gets scattered dissolving into the mind space. In the process, energy is released. Free energy may then be channeled into the stream of awareness through focus and concentration. Thoughts are finite entities, and when their power starts to fade, the awareness as the experiencer begins to dissociate from the experience. The awareness as the experiencer stays in the present even as the experience fades into the past. Since we identify more with the experience and less with awareness as the experiencer, we are pulled into the past. Physical suffering may be linked to the present, but psychological pain is mostly connected to the past and the future.
The energy that holds contents of thoughts together is the same energy that manifests as awareness. But they appear different on each side of the fence. On the side of awareness, that energy is amplified when we remain neutral and watchful. On the side of thoughts, energy gets magnified when we identify with our thoughts. When awareness grows, identification with thoughts lessens and vice versa.
The energy associated with awareness and that related to the contents of our thoughts cannot be amplified at the same time. It is one or the other. As one decreases, the other increases. This is an unwritten universal law. We can experience this for ourselves. If the focus is purely on the experiencer, the experience begins to fade. Conversely, if the focus is solely on the experience, the experiencer is not known. For the experiencer and the experience to become one, our ownership and identification with the contents of our thoughts as ‘mine’ must first disappear. Then, when we look from the side of the experience or the experiencer, it becomes the same energy qualitatively.
Awareness can exist without the context of time, place or person. When we are truly aware, we can maintain the same level of awareness all the time, wherever we go, and during any role, we perform in life such as that of a father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, employee, employer and so on. When energy is bound to thoughts, it may take various forms related to the specific contents of our thoughts. Without the context of time, place, and person thoughts may become meaningless.
Dropping identification with our thoughts can be easy or difficult. It becomes easy when we have the attitude of ‘let be’. It becomes difficult when we hold onto ‘let me’. ‘Let be’ relates to the quality of letting thoughts be as they are. When we are non-interfering, it is easy to remain neutral, watchful and witnessing. ‘Let me’ relates to the quality of wanting to interfere, experience and wanting to manipulate and change the experience to suit individual taste. Whether thoughts are perceived as positive or negative, they do not come to us with preassigned labels. We assign labels and make them negative or positive. That labeling may have happened sometime in the past, and when thoughts return, they reappear as ‘negative’ thoughts.
It takes conscious effort and practice to deflect attention from labeling to observing. No matter how precious a physical object may be, it can only enter the eyes as an image composed of reflected light. It obviously cannot physically enter the mind. Similarly, any thought negative or positive cannot contaminate our awareness as long as we remain as a neutral witness. A subtle image of thoughts may enter but they no way of staying on with our awareness that resides in a neutral watchful state. Thoughts, whether negative or positive may dance for a while in the mind space, but without any interest on our part to participate, they recede on their own. Witnessing without interaction may be a lasting and effective way to deal with negative thoughts.