Do you find yourself stuck in a loop of ruminating thoughts from time to time? Or even all the time? Yeah me too. One minute your driving, typing an essay or buying some bread and the next your swept away by a cascading narrative of mental bullshit
Its inbuilt programming for our minds to imagine the worst, in order to protect us from it ever coming to reality, or arm us in the event that it does. But when your heads stuck on the Dr. Pepper slogan and it’s interrupting you from getting shit done that needs to be done, there are a few handy techniques I’ve found from distilling ancient wisdom, modern psychology, and of course, movies that have proven quite useful to me over time in giving the middle finger to Mara (the demon lord of everything shitty) and turning the tables on the mind
Here are just a few on a sliding scale from 1 oh god its kind of annoying I keep thinking about this to 5 the zombie apocalypse would be preferable to my current situation, beam me up now scotty
1. Pull the Plug on Negative Thinking
What we often fail to realize, when thoughts seem to be crushing us under a shit tonne of weight, that our inner narration is a fabrication. Mastering the mind is near impossible when you believe your personal identity is built from it. Look closely enough and you might find that the mind is a tool, our sense of self is not primarily built on the things that randomly pop into it. If your aware of it, you’re bigger than it, you precede it, so that means you are not your body, you are not your mind, “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.” Ok that last bit was Tyler Durden in fight club, but hopefully you get the idea. He goes on in that quote to identify us as the “all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” At this point I’d like to interject by saying its maybe more productive from a stance of mental wellbeing to call you the all singing all dancing limited expressions of infinite consciousness, present in the form of loving awareness and spacious curiosity observing itself through the aperture of a transient body-mind, one consciousness dreaming itself through infinite forms and expressions to be limited and separate, but really playing every part in a divine play of its own making. Chuck Palanhuik’s description wasn’t quite a mouthful, it’s true our material nature, the vehicles for sensory experience or flesh bags we find ourselves in that are made of star stuff, cosmic energy, which is spectacular, but so is trash, so there you go
The First technique for breaking the hold of a mind attack that I’d like to outline is a simple one. Thought stopping. Your providing your thinking with all the power and ammo it has, so to thought stop is to realize, just like in that last scene of Fight Club, the gun is very much in your hand.
A technique sometimes used in meditation to stop the thinking is thought labelling. You don’t have to analyse the thought in any way, or let it lead on to another, just see any kind of thinking arising and say, thinking, thinking. No matter what it is, whether your having piercing attacks of low self image, feel like freddy krueger is poking around up there or your phantasising about a high school teacher you had the hots for. The contents of the thinking don’t matter- the monkey mind does its thing, its no real indication of who or what you are. It swings from one branch to another crapping indiscriminately on the leaves below in search of fruit. Sometimes that fruit turns out to be poison berries, you can feel plagued and attacked by your thoughts in your inner world. Capture that monkey mid swing and create your inner sanctum before it carpets the floor with droppings.
In addition to just stopping thinking in its tracks, the first port of call, there’s a technique used in NLP (neuro linguistic programming) that uses a visual aid to stop thinking in its tracks when it isn’t serving you. It’s called Whiteout. It might be that an uncomfortable memory is resurfacing and playing on repeat, or plunging you into a state of disassociation. It might be that you can’t stop thinking about something that you feel didn’t go as well as you hoped. The content of the thought doesn’t matter particularly, the point is you want it gone so you can go about your day in peace. When you white out, you turn up the brightness as high as you can in your mind on the visual image that’s causing you trouble, really quickly, like a flash of lightning, then change the subject to something else to distract from what you just let go of Flash W-W-W-WHITEOUT
Any distraction in the form of visualisation can also work, imagine that money being cared if it helps
Still lingering like a bad smell? OK skill number two…
2. Fight Fire with Fire
Play the mind at its own game, counter attacks of unworthyness, invitations to low self esteem, feelings of guilt and toxic shame with positive affirmations
Repetition is key here
This is the old Mantra technique, it might be helpful to read some positive affirmations or quotes by some clever types from the past, or use a spiritual mantra or contemplative prayer
In contemplative prayer a short line is taken from the bible and repeated until it bypasses the mind and penetrates you deeply, one such line is “Be Still and Know that I am God” this is a great one because the chaos of mind attacks are basically the opposite to stillness, in the stillness beneath chaotic waves everything is cool and calm, that’s what we want, the mind to shut the fuck up and let us be. Be Still. And what better entity to put to this task than a higher power? The highest power there is infact, the big boss in the sky, or in our hearts, depending on your belief. Repeating this powerful prayer line is seeing the mind as a schoolyard bully, he might beat you down the first few times you have a run in, but then you turn up with Mike Tyson to do the fighting for you, plus he’s carrying bazookas, and Bruce Lee is whirling round his nunchucks next to him, and Godzilla is on his way to help
If Christianity gives you the heebeejeebies, you can try a mantra from another spiritual lineage, Buddhism and Hinduism are full of them. Om Mani Padme Hum is one I use quite frequently. In Islam they have the 99 names of Allah, once you get finished up reciting them it’s not likely you’ll be stuck with the negative thinking you started out with. Using prayer or Mala beads might help to aid you in keeping track and more fully occupy your attention away from the horrible place its taken you to.
A mantra or affirmation doesn’t even have to be spiritual, you can repeat a meaningful song lyric, I find heavy and angry Punk Rock music to be pretty cathartic when negative feelings hit, even just OMmmm Fuck off Fuck off Fuck off is a workable mantra, we are going for practicality not sophistication here, it might be good and fine to repeat a beautiful passage or an uplifting affirmation, but in mind attacks of greater intensity, we are often cut off from our faculties of sound cognition. When we are at our lowest we aren’t at our most articulate. So really fighting fire with fire against hurtful and damaging thoughts is just creating a bigger more pleasing noise to drown out the noise already in there. Do what you can manage in these moments if thought stopping or white screening don’t work to distract the attention. Blaaaaaah Blaaaaah Blaaaaah or the theme from Coronation Street or 90210 are just fine. Whatever works
3. The Quickest way out of the mind is through the Body
Let the mind do its own thing, sometimes it’s grip can feel tighter than a hungry wrapping viper, taking it on with positive affirmations and the like can be like fighting a losing battle, one wooden sworded warrior against a horse of demons armed to the teeth. In other words you’re fucked, you’re mid panic attack, or truly beaten down, this technique is like playing dead when a bear is charging for you, or staying still when that Trex is skulking past in Jurrasic park. When watching the mind is too much, slip through it net and go elsewhere until it gives up its search
A. The mind will eventually give up and go out when you take the fuel from its fire
i. It thrives on the attention we give to it, that’s its lifeline, so ignoring its taunts is to sign it death warrant, instead of focusing on the terrible trip your thoughts are laying on you, focus on the breath, going in, going out, going in, going out
ii. Turn your attention to physical sensations in the body, scan around for tightness, with enough practice even the worst emotional states can be boiled down to a short burst of energy somewhere in the body when you remove the story connected with it and instead focus on how it feels physically. For instance, extreme frustration for me is a niggling prickly sensation in my lower spine, anger can be much like a fiery fluster starting in the centre of my body and then burning its way outward as it spreads (if you catch sensations early chances are they won’t spread far)
iii. Tune your attention out of mental activities and into physical sensations as much as you can, be mindful of your surroundings, what’s going on around you, what’s it feel like within you? Take away from that mental charter and inner narration by placing more focus on a physical object, a sensation or the outside world. And do this as far as you can, nonjudgementally. It can be helpful to start thinking about what’s out there rather than in here, but if by now your mood is in the gutter, and you’ve tried all the points above to no avail, chances are your mind will use that outside focus to tell you what’s wrong with the world, a further justification for you to feel like crap. So instead watch nonjudgementally, attach no story to any of it, have no opinions just watch and let it be, as it is.
4. Change your ENVIRONMENT
Alright so nothing worked so far, that’s ok theres still one more skill in the old tool box to work with, and many more elsewhere. You are a shining example of mental resilliance and so far you have a 100% successful survival rate for bad days. If you got to the end of the last point and your mind warped the outside world like a blonde from outer space into yet more ammo for its attacks on you, then get up and get out. A change of scenery is a small and simple way to lift your mood and stop ruminating. If your reading this in the midst of a serious bout of depression, anxiety or aggrophobia, getting out for a walk, a trip to the shops, getting into nature is a serious accomplishment.
Exercise is a great way to improve and maintain a good mental state, for some of us the battle between pizza and going to the gym and going for a run is almost always won by pizza, if it is, just a light walk to the park will do for shifting a small quick spell of mental anguish, step outside of the office, whatever
Take some headphones if you still need distraction and the beauty of the world isn’t immediately popping out to you. There are many great talks and podcasts online that help with these kinds of things, The Unusual Buddha being one of THEM, Josh Korda’s Dharma Punx NYC BEING ANOTHER
May you be at peace,
May you be at ease
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering
If this works where none of the other points did, congratulations and i hope you have a great day,
But if what your suffering is alot more than a few repetitive thoughts. More like a few months, or even a lifetime battle…
5. Seek some help
Depending on the severity of pervading negative thoughts, it might be time to give up going it alone. Online articles and a spiritual practice are great, so is exercising, but there’s no shame in admitting that sometimes we need help. If these thoughts have graduated from feeling a little bit shit to becoming suicidal ideations, or long periods of hopelessness, a lifestyle change is in order, if the standard of your mental wellbeing is at an all time low but the conditions of your life are pretty fucking good, talk therapy and seeing a doctor could be an essential component for radical and lasting positive change in your life. Diet, exercise, meditation, dharma, spiritual practice of any denomination, meaningful work and supportive human connections (a sangha) and doing something you love or finding a creative outlet (like this is for me) are all things that can be employed in tandem to create a joyful existence. Joy is your birthright, and our natural condition. But there is absolutely no shame in feeling like that hasn’t been the case, reach out to others if nothing you have tried on your own is working, reach out to professionals if need be
Talk therapy deepened my practice and broke my illusions far more than most other things I’ve experienced and medication saved my life, meditation and dharma practice help to enrich and maintain it, a solid network of support in my friends, family ,spending time with my son a beautiful and supportive partner and online sangha keep me sane and connected
See also James’ video on Spirituality and Religion vs Mental Health
And other upcoming articles from yours truly on mental health