The KEY Questions: How can I resist bad thoughts?

“Resistance is futile!”

It sounds like something out of a Bond film, or maybe the catch phrase of the latest Doctor Who villain. In our fiction the heroes are always putting up a valiant fight against the forces of evil. The odds are overwhelming but the good guys have right on their side, along with courage and an unshakeable determination to succeed in their cause.

All very well. There are many instances in life where these qualities are not only necessary but vital for survival, and fiction mirrors our need to be strong and protect our loved ones from danger. But what if the threat is not ‘out there’ in the big bad world but much, much closer to home?

What if the threat comes from our own thoughts?

Many times in the course of my work, as I’m trying to pass on my understanding of the principles to a client who is suffering, I’m faced with the following response, or a variation of it, usually said with a fair degree of frustration and even anger:

“The bad thoughts keep coming in. I try to resist them but I just can’t! What am I supposed to do?”

My response is always the same: we can’t and we shouldn’t resist our thoughts, no matter how negative they seem. Resistance, in this case, is worse than futile – it has inherent dangers. The ‘threat’ posed by our thinking is an illusion (it is itself nothing more than a thought) and to try to resist it simply compounds the problem, trapping us in a viscous circle of negativity. As our old friend the philosopher Carl Jung said: “What you resist persists.”

Human beings have thoughts. It’s what separates us from the animal kingdom. Those thoughts tend to go in one of two directions: to the past, where a whole set of personal beliefs – useful or otherwise – lie in wait to challenge us, or to an imagined future full of fanciful scenarios. And again, if we’re in a low mood those scenarios will look increasingly bleak and desperate. Jung’s insight was to see that as we turn away from the bad stuff, shutting it out in the mistaken belief that we are ‘wrong’ to be thinking it, we create the very conditions for the thought to grow even stronger within us.

I can give you an example from my own life, one that might be familiar to you if you’ve been reading these blogs. The seed of a thought was planted in me very many years ago. It was that I was lazy. Not true – it was actually a product of someone else’s well meaning but mistaken thought – but nevertheless it took root. I didn’t want this negative thing to define me so I fought against the thought, to try to disprove it. And of course my way of disproving it was to work very, very hard through decades of my early life and career. That hard work paid off in many ways but did it banish the negative thought? Did it make it go away for good?

No, of course not. Instead of seeing that thought for what it was: just a thought (and not even mine to begin with), I resisted it, as though it was real!

I have to admit it has taken me a while to emerge from under that particular thought cloud. Even as recently as a couple of years ago I had difficulty ‘allowing myself’ the luxury of a holiday free from thoughts about work. My new understanding of how the human mind works informs me that ‘down time’ is just as valuable – perhaps more valuable – for my life and my business than the daily routine of meetings and schedules, no matter how enjoyable.

What Carl Jung was pointing to was the value of a quiet mind, and that can only be achieved when we recognise thoughts for what they are: transient and above all harmless, without form. The illustration that accompanies this blog represents how many of us see the predicament we are in. Our fragile minds are caught in a ‘vice’ of thoughts that there is seemingly no escape from. ‘Resistance is futile’ because there is no stopping the relentless pressure, until we literally ‘crack’.

But suppose we look at the picture in a completely different way, one that is informed by the Three Principles understanding? The egg is Mind, which is shared by every living thing and cannot be broken. Mind can be said to be the only thing in the universe that actually persists. And the vice? The vice is made up of thought, as inconsequential as smoke. The threat it posed was always an illusion, ultimately as powerless as the bad guys in Doctor Who.

And where there is no threat, there is no need for resistance.