“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” – Henry David Thoreau
Humans are thinking, planning, and pondering animals that have survived because of this incredibly unique ability that we have to forecast the future and analyze ourselves. We don’t do things instinctively as other creatures do, rather, we do them in a calculated and planned manner. As we do these things we frequently and often automatically assess how are doing, how we look, how we think others are viewing us, and the potential outcomes of the actions that we are taking. This powerful ability is what enables us to survive and thrive as individual humans and as a species. It is also one of the greatest obstacle to human contentment, happiness, and serenity.
Our ability to think is what separates us from lower animals. Because we do not have the physical capability to adapt to our environment quickly, we have to plan ahead for any challenge that comes from our environment. When man first developed, he did not have the luxury of technology such as weather reports, calendars, and even basic needs such like food supply and a roof over his head. Over time, the human brain became wired to think ahead and be aware of catastrophic events that might occur, enabling man to prepare in advance for things that could destroy him, his family, and his tribe.
Thousands of years later, human evolution has developed the most sophisticated and complicated machine ever created – the human mind. It is estimated that the average person has between 40,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day. These thoughts provide an ongoing, running commentary on everything that goes on externally and internally that crosses into a person’s field of awareness. It also assesses what might happen, did happen, and should happen. This incredible process creates a belief that we possess a unique, yet intangible, property that we call our mind. We also believe that this mind is our essence, our very being, and who we are. We are constantly evaluating, planning, and perseverating over these thousands of thoughts each day that both define us and our world.
Studies have shown that the quality of our thoughts tends to be repetitive and consistent. In other words, we tend to loop the same thought patterns through our minds over and over and over again and again. Approximately 95% of these thoughts are repeated every day! We are truly creatures of habit, even when it comes to our internal representation of the world and ourselves. We do this intuitively because we are still alive. The mind thinks that these thoughts are necessary and that they are protective. More interesting than the repetition of thought is that on average 80% of these thoughts are negative. These thoughts, which originally developed in order to protect us from natural disaster and catastrophic events, are the ones that sabotage goals, lower self-esteem, ruin relationships, and suck the joy out of life for modern man. Literally 80% of our waking thoughts have the potential to create doom and gloom.
MRI imaging has proven that negative thoughts have a more powerful and lasting impact on the brain then positive ones. They stimulate areas of the brain that create depression and anxiety. These emotions frequently result from thoughts that dwell on regrets from the past and doubts about the future. Positive thoughts create brain chemicals that set off an intense, yet brief, surge of positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and excitement. Unfortunately, effects from these positive emotions are fleeting and must be replenished frequently.
Recent research in the field of Positive Psychology seem to indicate that some people have a higher capacity to hang on to these positive thoughts and experiences. We tend to view these people as optimists. Conversely, those that do not have capability to hang on to these positive experiences are our pessimists. Whether one is an optimist or a pessimist, both categories have the capability of choosing many of the 50,000 or so thoughts that run through their mind on a daily basis.
So how can one capture and contain these positive thoughts? Here are some ideas from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that work:
⦁ Notice and pay attention to your automatic thoughts. Most people discover that the majority of every day thoughts are either useless or negative. The simple act of noticing a negative thought can be therapeutic in and of itself. It becomes virtually impossible to not change when you notice your own negativity. Probably the best way to notice the quality of your thoughts is to create a meditation practice. What you will find about the quality of your thoughts will be pretty amazing. Over a few days time you’ll notice patterns that consistently pop up.
⦁ Notice the patterns of self talk. Self talk is an internal, observing voice that provides a running commentary of virtually everything that you do. You’re probably aware that this voice has been with you ever since you’ve been able to think. The goal here is to become aware of how this voice impacts your beliefs about your ability to cope with the world, take risks, and attain goals. This inner voice, more than anything else, determines your level of functioning and relationship to the world.
⦁ Stay attuned to these thoughts as much as possible. Get comfortable with the being uncomfortable with your thinking. Most people will instinctively try to numb these thoughts with alcohol, drugs, food, or some other distracting activity. Keep in mind that you cannot change anything that you do not notice.
⦁ Question every negative thought that you have, asking yourself whether or not they are true, accurate, or even possible. Most negative thinkers can be pretty sarcastic and demanding of others who violate their sense of self. Question your own thinking in the same manner. Decide which thoughts are helpful and which thoughts are not. You’d never talk to somebody else the way you talk to yourself. Give yourself the same consideration you’d give to a loved one with your self talk.
⦁ Develop some lifestyle practices that minimize amount of thoughts that you have. A mindfulness practice is a great way to be fully present in a moment or activity. Use the search box of this blog for simple and easy ways to develop a regular practice.
Thoughts create our reality and our interpretation of reality determines our view of our life. Becoming aware of the nature of our habitual thinking is the first step to deciding how we want our life to be. The ability to choose how we feel about our life is perhaps the most important way a human can adapt to the world.
“A man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.” – James Allen, As a Man Thinketh
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