Disarming Your Negative Thoughts: How Meditation Helps

We expect too much of language. People use it to console, laugh, and express love. Phrases manage our relationships and help us make a living. We grab them to persuade and to injure.

Regrettably, our words also damage us. I refer to the private internal self-torture we alone can hear.

One remedy for this problem does not involve the pitiless expressions themselves. Instead, the method helps get us away from the typed black and white creatures inhabiting dictionaries, the ones we utter within our inner sanctum.

Allow me to explain the background first.

In cases of depression and anxiety, the voice inside our head is leaden, crushing. The word contraption called the brain pumps out endless discouragement, self-doubt, potential catastrophe, regret, and self-blame. All in letters of the alphabet, all caps in a giant font.

Some of this is caused by our genetic wiring, some learned. Homo sapiens survived because ancestors could anticipate problems and plan for defense. Communication helped. Thinking ahead and in our head was vital, allowing reflection on the past and learning from personal history, too. We take in criticism as they did, especially when young, to better adapt to conditions, meet inescapable demands, and achieve acceptance by the community.

For the troubled among us in particular, when nothing else occupies our attention, invading armies of words sometimes describe an unfortunate back story, accuse one of inadequacy, and generate fear of the future. The space between the ears is filled with emotionally charged, unsettling sentences. We try to avoid or escape them by occupying our time in productive and joyous activities, embracing love, and engaging in hobbies.

Some use the radio or TV to drown out their self-loathing. Books might distract, video games entertain. Others imbibe alcohol or take drugs. The lucky sleep self-recrimination away, fortunate unless slumber is all they can do.

When work and play are done — often late at night or when we are by ourselves — the loquacious intercranial attack picks up. Try as we do to kick the phrases away, they rebound in our direction. The more our ideas are repeated internally, the more they boomerang, as if connected to a rubber band we can only stretch so far before a snapping return to the original shape, shooting the trouble back at us.

The harsh routine at its worst implies, “Sorry, your lifetime allotment of happiness is used up.”The task for winning the battle for our distressed brain’s attention is to drain the words of their power. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can do some of that, increasing our ability to talk back to irrational cognitions.

Traditional dynamic psychotherapy, in addition, aims to relieve us of our sense of unworthiness based on mistreatment by parents and other misfortunes. Grief-work is necessary.

As for the rest, all of us benefit from being calmed and relieved of the tendency to give too much desperate meaning to the reflexive thoughts that seem to think themselves into us and against us.

Mindfulness meditation can address this. The usual instruction is to concentrate on your breathing. If you are like me, a few seconds into early meditation sessions a distraction will pull you away from a focus on the breath. Many of the intrusions are benign and random. This is typical and not a bad thing.

Once you recognize what happened you are informed how your mind works. Even more so, if the topic taking your attention off breathing is challenging and you notice this. Maybe it’s anxiety or worry about what is before you, perhaps downing yourself over a comment you made or sadness and anger about what a neighbor said about you.

The new meditator’s job is observing the unpleasantness and then returning attention to his inhalation and exhalation. You don’t flee the interruption, indeed you recognize it without judgment. Meditation experts tell us our value judgments (good/bad, right wrong, pleasant/unpleasant, positive/negative, wise/foolish) make such disruptive notions and feelings more painful than would otherwise be the case.

When everything goes as planned, a practice of daily meditation allows you to accept these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts). Life gets a bit easier. One’s intelligence is pulled away from self-disparagement, concentration improves, and you become calmer. Your head is emptied of incessant involuntary terminology and its tag-along emotions. Words separate from their previous emotional resonance and residue.

In one sense you have grown more observant of your cognitive and affective private life while more distant from it: less trapped and victimized by the historically fraught words. Their grip on you is loosened. A state of liberation follows, along with an experiential realization the punisher inside is not your master any longer: not essential to who you are.

A personal example: I once went to the Emergency Room with unendurable, hours-long pain from a kidney stone. I’d encountered a few such hard but injurious objects before, but never so lasting and punishing. I was given morphine, a narcotic.

Once medicated my body reminded me the affliction was yet there, but I was distanced and detached from the hurt: more accepting of it. I no longer cared. My feelings about the discomfort dissolved. For a meditator who is far enough along, the concepts once capable of hijacking your well-being lose the authority to harm you, though you still sometimes note the same terms in your head. You stop giving them importance, thus robbing them of their “truth” and impact.

Instead, you deem the terms as arguable statements, not indictments of your worth. They rest easier, not allowed to be a part of you, not taken to heart. These perceptions and notions have detached from your identity. The experience is like reading a book or watching a movie about someone else, not you. Separation from such things permits you to see the world and yourself in a more objective fashion.

In effect, the meaningful labels you attached to many of these internal communications lose their sticking ability, as if the “glue” adhering to your self-image dried up. The stickers fall off. The readiness to judge falls away. Room for beauty and fascination take up space once occupied by darkness.

Nor is your decision-making as likely to be influenced by the hyper-emotional thought-generation machine. The enemy within the language has been disarmed. Life can be more in your control, free of the ever-growing clutter of self-inflicted emotions and concepts you’ve been living with. The reprogrammed cerebral cortex is more settled. Moments of serenity are possible.

Do not minimize the amount of work involved in the process. Most people I’ve known who try meditation give up early. They believe they are “bad at it,” bored, or report the assault of troublesome beliefs and worries entering their attempt to quiet the mind makes them worse than before. Others only begin when their suffering is already at a peak rather than when depression or anxiety is not so present. Some find the needed time and discipline of a once-a-day devotion to the endeavor more than they can do.

I can only say that persistence, dedication, and the capacity to wait for delayed gratification are useful in meditation and much else in life. Combined with CBT (including any needed grief-work), the world may open to you in a new and better way.

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The first photo is of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park. Next comes Composition VII by Kandinsky, followed by 72 Seconds Before Actual Sunrise, Southern California, USA by Jessie Eastland from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, The Rayleigh Effect, Seconds Before Sunrise in New Zealand by Moriori, also from Wikimedia Commons.

Escaping from Ourselves: Music, Crowds, and Other Ways Out

April 21 was Record Store Day, an international event celebrating the hunt for tunes you can hold in your hands. By coincidence, this classical music lover found himself listening to a rock concert at a stop where I hoped to shop, not bop. I’d never attended anything similar, but learned something you won’t in a Mozart-friendly venue: the pain people suffer to escape themselves. Or simply to have a good time.

Only a matter of feet from the amplified band, everyone was moving to the music, ear drums be damned by snares and cymbals. What was punishing to me in sheer volume got other people out of themselves. Big music doing a big job. The point was not to use thought, but to submit to the mood-altering bombardment and escape reasoned analysis and reflection.

We do need to get away from reality. Intensity of sound was the key. The straight-jacket of our brain gets loosened and our suffering is covered-over, swamped by an aural tsunami.

Music isn’t the only way. Take the extremity of self-mutilation: cutting your body, as some do, not for decoration, but replacement of emotional pain by the application of physical pain; like a new coat of paint.

Sports venues also use loudness to launch escape from self. Conversation is difficult. Even attention to the game on the field. “Play ball?” You’ll see it, but won’t hear the infield chatter or bat striking ball. No foreground of sound and background of silence, like visual art, but all foreground all the time.

Beyond a flight from acute emotional distress, why might we want to depart reality? Life can be rather too much, don’t you think? The vocational rat race, mortality, and inevitable comparisons and competitions come to mind. No wonder we drink, smoke funny cigarettes, and overeat.

The human being is a clever creature, tricking himself to fly without even knowing what he is doing or why.

Those who dissociate in the midst of a traumatic event describe their transformation as a “going away:” separating a part of themselves from the portion encountering the unsparing awfulness. By breaking into segments, another facet of the personality experiences the grotesquery in a muted fashion or not at all.

Nearly everyone sometimes compartmentalizes his experience. We take in what distress can be managed and screen out the rest, without the extreme loss of awareness in dissociation. “I’ll think about this later,” so we tell ourselves, and a door in the brain closes.

Crowds can help you get out of yourself. Not just at concerts, but political rallies. Size matters. We give up thinking for nonbeing, joining, submerging. At the crowd’s worst, rules disappear, exchanged for bad faith. Humanity and civilization are discarded. We return to more primal roots. The unity of the group is all. You are not solo, not separate, but swept into in a mob of homogeneous excitation. No wonder the mass goes crazy and the individuals lose themselves, surrendering their agency to the power of the collective.

Talented populist orators evoke a frenzy, a single-mindedness they manipulate with our complicity. Why? Because we desire this loss of responsibility and control; the mental weight of making a decision. Once unburdened, anything is possible with someone else’s permission and direction. Think Lord of the Flies and what happens to Piggy.

Sensation of a transcendent kind is found in sex. Sexual contact allows us to escape of our bodies in the body of another. We are swept away in the stretching, sweating, touching, playing, craving, and holding. Our surrender to flooding hormones and synchronous beating hearts yields ecstasy: escape velocity that returns us to our unthinking creatureliness, our animality.

But there is more. When wills and wants and sensibilities align we exchange essences. After, we take some portion of the other’s otherness with us. Each party is completed. We are less ourselves and alone. In the consummation we escape our own boundaries.

Dancing and religious rites can create self-abandonment. Some worshipful gatherings sanctify and applaud those who “speak in tongues.” They become unmoored, taken over by a language that is not a language.

Quieter ways to lose yourself exist, but they lack the drama and require concentration; say, on a book you are reading or by the discipline of a hard-won meditation practice. We can depart our self in a state of “flow” at work, too. But, if you want to leave your consciousness behind without industrious effort, these will not do.

Standard variety vacations suffice, especially if they take you to a place of anonymity, a strange culture, away from work and obligation: in the most positive sense, out of your mind. The tendrils of thought pulling you back to homely discontent are cut.

No judgement here. Relief is necessary. Distraction and diversion take many forms. We don’t always choose our evasive poisons or medicines wisely, but one cannot make the best of reality without the occasional departure from the realm of the hard and real. Passing time without flights of fancy would be too grim.

Here’s to the high flyers, the ones climbing toward the clouds in search of cloudiness. It is true, the upper reaches are opaque, but where is it written we must always be clear-eyed?

Smile, laugh, and make love. Or, as the old verse tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.”

So says the Bible!

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The first image is Tape Floor by Jim Lambie. The second is Fenix by Josignacio. Finally, Dancers by Degas. All are sourced from Wikiart.org/

Understanding Rebound Romance (and the Rest of Life)

512px-Angel_with_broken_heart

A heart in pain is like a falling star, fascinating until you realize it might become a meteorite about to burn and crash. Will the object splatter? Will the rock survive? Will it bounce in the wrong direction? Such is the life of romance on the rebound.

Unrequited love offers a chance to understand life’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” not only those puncturing the bubble of romance.

What causes us to make a rapid jump back into the dating pool after the ex has left the water? The easiest band-aid for rejection is to blame the former love and pick yourself up quickly, as if to say “I’ll show him!” Or perhaps solitary time frightens you, having never learned to be independent. A long stretch being without a sweetheart to lean on is unimaginable for the insecure.

Fair enough, but this is a reminder to become self-sufficient, not to substitute a fresh body. Moreover, we must learn about our part in love’s failure — one’s own fingerprints on the broken pieces of the loving cup. Was he the wrong mate, yet the type we routinely pick? What motivates our repeated errant choices? Which of our personal characteristics require change — the ones that fray a relationship’s fabric?

Just as essential is the need to grieve the loss. Without doing so, plotting a course forward has but a blind man’s chance of success. We run backward into unfamiliar arms because of the preoccupation with those that previously encircled us. Too late do we turn to look closely at the one now holding us, so great is our desperation to flee the pain of dismissal. Accidents are expected if you don’t see the Mack Truck coming your way. Might the unknown man be just a distraction? Might he remind you of the bygone boyfriend? Do you want to make the ex jealous by displaying an updated, successful, stud puppet? Or is the replacement beau a bodily application, flesh against flesh — a kind of salve — not to heal soreness but to sooth the soul?

Perhaps the fresh darling represents a flight from pain and loneliness, as drugs, alcohol, and overwork often do. The world is now too much. Deadening and distraction can take a human form in the new beloved. You feel powerless over memories and the emotions attached. These unwanted intruders inflict anguish to head and heart. The awfulness seems eternal, as if each second of woe is like a person in a line stretching over the horizon, where the queue’s length (to the point past suffering) signals a journey without end. So you interrupt the grieving you need and escape to someone untried.

Sometimes you are so foolish as to persuade yourself that you won’t permit strong emotions about the new person. I cannot tell you how many patients told me this only shortly before they were again “in love,” again with a bad match.

A rush to get past sadness — as if sorrow can be outrun — often leaves you unstrung. Your head swivels: first looking back, then looking away, finally looking without seeing.

We need to abide with the pain, learn what it can tell us.  Affliction is endurable, albeit one second at a time. Blinder yourself (if you can) against the imagined endless emptiness. After all, perpetual sadness is a possibility, not a guarantee. The catastrophized future leads to desperation, despondency, and poor decisions. Hearts heal, but only if we attend to their needs.

Just as you would not dismiss your grief after the death of a parent, so must you not race past it when love vanishes. The disappearance of affection, no matter the kind or cause, is a stern taskmaster. Pay now or pay later, but you will pay.

We need human attachment to mend the broken heart strings. Before you flee to a passionate embrace, however, are there those who would embrace you in sympathy? Friends, family, or (figuratively speaking) a therapist? They can be enough.

Life asks us weighty questions. How much of the human experience will we let in? How much of living and sensation do we wall off in order to survive? The round world has sharp edges. Walls must be built. We all do it and, to some extent, we have to. How high, how completely, and in what manner are the only relevant considerations. And what do we give up to make life manageable, prevent feeling overwhelmed?

In pondering our psychological defenses and their cost, whether we have love in our life or not, we are all summoned to the same solemn self-interrogation.

How will you answer?

The top photo, Angel with a Broken Heart (Tomba Famiglia Ribaudo) is the work of Jeff Kerwin, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Unsung Value of Denial and Distraction: Where Therapists can Go Wrong

Big Eyes

One of my mentors was a psychiatrist of immense intellect and a laser’s capacity to cut to a psychiatric diagnosis. His brilliance as a diagnostician, however, did not extend to gently bringing his well-defended patients down the therapeutic path. He was a surgeon of the mind. Surgeons leave scars.

You might think of psychotherapy’s beginning as a kind of dance, with the patient in motion like Salome, wearing seven veils. The veils and shifting movement are for protection, not seduction. The client suffers “too much” and the covering — any covering — guards against invasion. If you, as doctor, rip the gauzy garments away, you do an injury. Without a shield, the client is exposed, terrified, and likely to flee treatment.

Too much too soon. A good mental health professional doesn’t drain a protective moat until the patient develops the courage to take on the scary world outside the castle (or inside his head). The counselor must avoid retraumatizing the patient, in effect flooding him with emotions he is unprepared for. The irony of hurting when you mean to help could not be more poignant or more terrible.

Young therapists can miss this. So do managed care companies when they want you to push treatment as fast as possible (to cut its cost) or medicate the insured party for the same reason. My mentor was guilty of ignoring the same therapeutic speed bump.

The challenge of focusing on life’s dark side was understood by the mathematician and big thinker, Blaise Pascal, who died just short of age 40 in 1662. He recognized the need to divert oneself from contemplation of the human condition. Students of clinical psychology might benefit from his words. For example:

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.

Or this:

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

In short, the world can overwhelm such small creatures as we are. Those in most need of distraction are often the least inclined to make use of this necessary method in the pursuit of equanimity.

Pascal again:

However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts, and however happy a man may be, if he lacks diversion and has no absorbing passion or entertainment to keep boredom away, he will soon be depressed and unhappy. Without diversion there is no joy; with diversion there is no sadness.

I’d say Pascal goes too far, but his point is a worthy one. I can name many people who seem relatively happy (at least for the moment) because they don’t think about the shadow following them down the street. A memorable patient of mine found escape in diversion and denial: she ate enough carbohydrates to push her well into obesity and diabetes. Yet, while eating, she felt good. Indeed, during stressful moments, she believed she deserved a treat as compensation for her upset.

The therapist’s job is to find a balance between allowing people to use their long-standing psychological defenses while gradually helping them recognize the longer term damage they are doing to themselves by not facing problems. With the large lady in question, it was quite a tightrope walk.

I find myself on both sides of the balance beam. Socrates was right when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So, however, was Pascal, by implying the deleterious effects of too much “examination,” rumination, and painful memory. The truth is hard to swallow, as the kid in the top photo is about to find out.

I guess if I had to create my own mantra, I’d look to alter the inscription on the Temple of Apollo, which read:

“Know Thyself”

My less pithy version would be: “Know thyself, but not all in one bite. Remember: your eyes (for truth) are bigger than your stomach.”