5. Recognizing Thoughts

November 28, 2023

'Distancing' can be practiced in three stages. Let's look at each one. The first is 'recognizing thoughts'. This is nearly identical to the Awareness mentioned in Mindfulness meditation. Simply put, it means being able to recognize the thoughts that arise in your mind. "I know what I'm thinking and how I live." Did this thought just come up in your mind? Unfortunately, most people don't even know what 'thoughts' they have, or more precisely, what thoughts 'arise' in their minds.

Try to recall a problem that has recently bothered you. What thoughts do you have about the issue? Have you ever looked at your own thoughts from afar and thought, "I have these thoughts in my mind about this issue"? What was your clear stance on the issue? What elements were included in the thoughts? Doubt? Anxiety? Conviction? Regret? Have you ever looked clearly at your thoughts on the issue?

Sadly, most modern people do not recognize their thoughts. They are simply swept away by the thoughts that arise in their minds. If the idea that 'I' is an illusion, and the idea that thoughts just arise in the mind as a result of various environmental stimuli, then those who live in reaction to those thoughts are no different than entrusting their lives to chance. Of course, they believe that they live freely and proactively (for the record, beetles and ants too would feel that they live proactively).

Let's try a simple exercise. There are various methods to practice recognition. Respiration meditation, used in Mindfulness meditation, is a good method. Seon meditation, which the practitioners do, is also a good method. However, we need a more practical method to help us understand that our thinking is not us. Here is a simple method that meets this goal.

Imagine a river in front of you. It's a river of thoughts. The stream flows quietly from top to bottom. Leaves are on the water. Leaves float from higher to lower places along the water. The stream is your mind. The leaves are thoughts. You are next to the stream. Remember that you are not in the stream. You are merely observing your mind one step apart. The image below may help you understand this situation.

Image 1. River of thoughts

Now, close your eyes for a moment and look at the river. Sixty seconds should be enough to start. But remember one thing: your place is beside the stream, not inside it. 'I' is just an illusion. Thoughts simply arise in the mind. All you need to do is to be aware of these thoughts. Whatever thought comes up in your mind, just think, 'that's a thought,' and that's all. There's no need to run downstream after the thought on the leaf, and there's no need to get into the stream, fiddle with the leaf and cause a fuss. Just concentrate on looking at it. If at any moment you realize that you are not beside the stream, try to return to your place. That's all you have to do. So, let's gaze at the river for 60 seconds.

How was it? You probably realized that observing thoughts is not an easy task. But at the same time, you might have realized that it is indeed possible to observe thoughts without identifying with them. You can't instantly gain the ability to recognize thoughts. This, too, takes practice. According to a series of studies, this practice increases neuroplasticity in the brain. This means it flexes our brain's wires that were rigidly tangled up. Once the nerves can be flexed, we can reprocess patterned problems like depression, anxiety, panic, and incessant retrospection.

This exercise can be habitually performed in daily life. When you react emotionally at some point, when you feel confused, you subtly flex your nerve until you can stand beside the stream. Remember the difference between the thought, "Damn, I'm so anxious," and "I'm having a thought that I'm anxious." When a specific thought floats down on a leaf, chant, "I'm having a thought that...," or "In my mind, there's a thought arising that..." It doesn't matter the time or place. Just take time until you can stand beside the stream. According to research, even this method alone significantly reduced depression and anxiety. Once you can look at it from a distance, the influence that thought and emotion have on you decreases.

Of course, more intricate work is needed when dealing with conditions like depression and anxiety. At this point, you need the help of a cognitive therapist. The cognitive therapist helps to concretize the thoughts that need to be recognized and distanced through good questions. In cases like clinical depression and anxiety, more critical thoughts tend to form specific thoughts, and these thoughts are hard to concretize without systematic questioning. For example, people with depression often form a specific core belief (e.g., "I am lacking") due to a series of early experiences (e.g., many instances of not being acknowledged during childhood, having experienced a major failure). This core belief produces important assumptions about life (e.g., if it's not perfect, it's meaningless), attitudes (e.g., challenging is meaningless), and rules (e.g., it has to be perfect). And these assumptions, attitudes, and rules create negative thoughts in our minds (e.g., "What if I fail again in this project? Then it's irreversible").

In this way, when dealing with depression and anxiety, one needs to understand this thought system (referred to as a 'thought map') and practice 'distancing' from these thoughts. However, if it's not a clinical level of depression or anxiety, the aforementioned exercise should suffice. When your mind is shaken, simply pause for a moment to observe the river of thoughts and recognize what sort of thoughts arise in your mind. Even if you simply make this exercise habitual, you can obtain significant psychological flexibility and resilience.

Lastly, there's an extremely crucial part. When performing exercises in the 'river of thoughts', it's essential to willingly accept the negative thoughts that crop up in the mind, rather than succumbing, overcompensating, or avoiding them. I emphasize once again that it's impossible to halt negative thoughts from emerging in the mind. Attempting a battle against these thoughts will only result in defeat. However, if we treat these negative thoughts as mere psychological events and wholeheartedly acknowledge their existence, they might not torment us. In other words, rather than giving in to the negative thoughts, attempting to conquer them, or striving to expel them from the mind, we should fully sense and accept the fact that these thoughts have emerged in our minds.

This approach is strongly reinforced in pain medicine. Actually, pain is nothing more than a sensation that appears in the mind. Have you ever tried to fully sense and observe a negative thought or sensation? The next time you bite your tongue, instead of gripping it and shrieking in pain, try to observe what the sensation of pain specifically feels like. When you come across a pile of trash giving off a nauseating smell, instead of pinching your nose and feeling disturbed, breathe deeply. Miraculously, you might find that its impact on you profoundly diminishes when you don't avoid it, sincerely observe and sense it, and simply view it as a sensation arising in your mind. Likewise, if you can entirely accept and embrace the thought without overly reacting, you will finally be able to understand that it's not as negative as you initially believed, but merely one of the psychological events that arise in the mind.

To summarize, when your mind becomes turbulent, sit by the 'river of thoughts' and wholeheartedly confront the floating thoughts, not yielding to, overcompensating for, or evading them, but instead observing them as they drift past. I can confidently assure that this exercise will bring about remarkable changes in your life.

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