The KEY Questions: How can I control my thoughts?

“Don’t worry!” they say. “Think about something else”.

Who on earth wants to worry? Who wants to be agitated or afraid? No one, obviously. But it sometimes seems inevitable. ‘Don’t worry’ is, like ‘Keep calm’, or ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant”, an instruction that sounds plausible on the surface but is actually impossible to carry out. It is always said with the best intentions, usually by friends or loved ones who may themselves be worried, i.e. worried that you or I may be worried, (perhaps they should take their own advice!)

The simple fact is that a worry is nothing more than a thought, one that we are giving excess energy to with our critical faculties.

The original thought – the worrying thought – came to us from the great ocean of Mind, and we could no more prevent it from entering our heads than we could turn back the tide. I vividly remember an occasion, quite recently, when I was attending a Three Principles retreat with my wife Anna. For some reason, out of the blue, a negative thought popped into my mind. I don’t remember the content of the thought. It could have been about money, it could have been health or work-related. It really doesn’t matter. Whatever it was it cast a dark shadow over me, at a time when I was supposed to be relaxing and enjoying myself. Anna is normally a very chilled person but on this occasion she became irritated.

“Why, all of a sudden, are you thinking about that !!?”

I reacted a little defensively, correctly pointing out that I hadn’t intended to think about it. I hadn’t deliberately conjured up the thought just to torment myself, or spoil the congenial atmosphere of the retreat.

The thought passed – as they always do – but that moment stuck in my mind. There was a lesson in it, and it’s about control, or more accurately self-control.

We humans have a sense of ourselves being masters of our own destiny. We live in the mistaken belief that we can, and should, control our thoughts, as if we could literally head them off at the pass, intercept them at a subconscious level like neurological bouncers at the entrance to our conscious minds; petty thoughts, jealous, mean thoughts, unworthy thoughts.

We can’t.

Our brains are not wired that way. Besides the attempt to stop oneself having a thought would also involve a thought. How’s that for a paradox? By the time you’ve registered a negative thought it is already too late to decide not to think it. Short of having a very quick lobotomy, it cannot be reversed. Consequently we all sometimes feel we’re helplessly adrift in a sea of random thoughts, good and bad, the bad ones being put down to a mixture of our tragic personal history and our present dire circumstances.

So what’s the answer?

Sydney Banks described Universal Thought as a rudder, giving each of us the ability to steer the ‘ship’ of our conscious mind away from rough seas and into the calmer waters of a happy and fulfilled life. Syd was not implying that we would never have bad thoughts. We can’t control them but we can control how much time and energy we invest in them. We have the power to switch our attention to those thoughts that guide us towards a happier life.

That is the true meaning of control in this context.

Thinking back to that day at the retreat – and in fact over many, many similar instances – I remember that I let go of that thought pretty quickly. With the bad thought went the bad feeling and my face and body relaxed back into their normal, pretty neutral state. I didn’t have to work at it. I didn’t have to ‘pull myself together’, (another of those impossible instructions). It happened by itself, thanks to this new understanding I’ve reached, which seems to act like an invisible user manual for the brain.

You will have bad thoughts from time to time, but judging yourself as a result solves nothing. It only creates more negative thinking. Remember that it only seems as if the thoughts have been generated by your past history or present circumstances. In fact they are coming from you, but that’s normal. They will fall from the ‘tree’ of Mind like leaves in autumn. Ignore them.

All the times when I have ever suffered emotional turmoil were all, every one of them, down to one thing: I chased bad thoughts with more bad thoughts until they formed an impenetrable ‘crust’ or barrier to my unconscious mind. Those negative thoughts overshadowed my true self, the one who wanted to be happy, who needed to be calm, who didn’t want to worry. What’s more when that crust was formed it tended to stop the good thoughts from getting through, those good thoughts that were always there.

Are you trying to control your thoughts?