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negative thoughts are not controlling you

I’ve received a lot of questions actually about negative thoughts or compulsive thinking.

People are worried that they have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) some of whom might have it. I’ve already done a video on defusion which is a technique you can use to deal with thoughts. If you guys want to get your hands on that video just email me dan@brojo.co.nz and I’ll send that through. It’s a private video that I keep.

Free Will

What I wanted to talk about today is a deeper belief system that causes our attachment to thoughts.

The reason that you get stuck on uncomfortable thoughts, sexual thoughts, negative thoughts, self-doubting type thoughts – any kind of thoughts that hurt you – is because we have an underlying belief system around free will. This is my theory anyway.

Free will is a weird concept because scientifically speaking it’s not possible. It is not possible to make a decision without being affected by your own brain; it’s not possible to have a brain that’s unaffected by your environment and by your upbringing. So the idea that you can make a decision that has not been influenced by everything that’s ever happened to you (in other words predetermined) is scientifically ridiculous.

But the problem with free will – the belief that you make your decisions yourself consciously – leads people to take their thoughts very seriously, because they believe that their thoughts are the process of free will decision-making.

I want you to just notice that. Notice how you consider your thinking to be your decision-making process, don’t you?

And that’s why whenever thoughts pop into your head you give them a lot of consideration. You dig into them, you delve into them, you dwell on them, you get stuck on them, because you think this is the process of your brain making a decision.

Neuroscience shows us quite clearly that at least a majority of decision-making processes are made subconsciously[1], which means you’re having no thoughts in relation to them.

Subconscious decisions

There’s been some tests done recently over the last few years that show that somebody makes a decision before they’re aware of the decision being made[2]. It’s made in the subconscious part of the brain – the limbic system, sometimes even the brainstem perhaps – and so the idea that thoughts (current conscious thoughts) are somehow decision-making processes is ridiculous.

But if you believe that they are you’ll take them all very seriously. You’ll take them at face value. A thought will come into your head you’ll think “Well that’s a serious piece of information, that’s some truthful shit, I better pay attention to it – get out your little notebook, what are you trying to tell me thoughts? What is the deep and meaningful kind of intention here?”

What I’ve come to realize is the truth about thoughts is: it’s just your brain making noise. Now that noise can be helpful or unhelpful. It’s almost never truthful, it’s just an interpretation.

Brain noise

If you imagine an artist who wants to draw something and they don’t know what they want to draw yet, so they just start doodling on a piece of paper. Maybe a bit of this, maybe a bit of that – see what captures their imagination. Thoughts are like that. It’s just your brain doodling out ideas, playing with ideas.

Now those ideas will come and pass. Like Eckhart Tolle says, your consciousness is the sky and thoughts are just clouds passing by, and if you just see thoughts as clouds passing by they will pass. Some hang around for a little while but most of them just come and then they go, they come and they go. Even the ones that hang around keep changing shape so it’s actually new thoughts all the time.

But if you try to keep hold of a thought – if you try to investigate it and try to understand it or try to have a conversation with it – then it sticks around and it gets bigger. You try to fight against it, it gets even bigger still.

Getting Stuck

People get stuck in their heads for one of two reasons: either they’re trying to understand their thoughts, as if it’s some serious piece of information that needs investigation, or they’re trying to push it away and get rid of it and fight against it, which just aggravates it.

It’s that old classic: do not think of a big pink elephant. Your brain immediately thinks of one. So as soon as you try not to have a thought, it amplifies the thought, it does not make it go away.

OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) or being on the spectrum of compulsive thinking usually comes from fighting against thoughts or taking them very seriously. And both of those approaches come from, I believe, the idea of free will; that your thinking processes are decision-making processes, therefore they are serious and you must take them seriously.

I just want to challenge that idea.

Imagine if your thoughts aren’t really much to do with your decision-making process at all. Especially not the thoughts that just ‘pop’ into your head.

Planning vs thinking

There’s a big difference to the thoughts that just pop into your mind unbidden, and planning consciously: deliberately thinking out something through, writing it down and coming up with a strategic action plan based on your values – it’s a very different style of thinking. In fact, it’s not really thinking at all but planning.

And that’s where thoughts become helpful. You go, “Brain, I need some information about this,” and thoughts come up.

That’s so much different to going, “Oh no! I’m feeling emotional!” and obeying any thoughts come up. Those thoughts are usually very unhelpful. They’re just guesses by your brain as to what’s happening.

It’s not real!

What I suggest when it comes to so-called negative and painful thoughts actually coming up, to apply the defusion practices, but mostly to keep reminding yourself this isn’t decision-making, this isn’t real, it’s just noises.

And notice how if you don’t take it as decision-making, you can do whatever you like. The thought can say, “Don’t talk to that person,” and yet you can still talk to them. The thought doesn’t actually stop you. The thought makes it uncomfortable but it doesn’t stop you.

If you believe that thoughts are the decision-making process, then the thought stops you. But it’s only the belief in the thought that makes you stop.

I want you to try something over the next week.

I want you to make a list – planning style thinking now – of all the things you know you should be doing this week. And then I want you to try and do them, until the thoughts come up – the thoughts that doubt you, the thoughts that question everything, the thoughts that throw out distractions that you ‘need’ to investigate and think through and sit still and not do your actions.

And when you notice that happening just try and do the action.

Just go, “Okay thoughts, nice to see you, acknowledged, now I’m gonna go do it.” Even if they say don’t do it, do it. I want you to just notice that you can break that. Your thoughts are not the decision.

Get cold

The decision to go do it comes from somewhere deeper. One way to test this, if you can’t think of any other good ideas, is to have a cold shower. Go and run a cold shower right after you read this and then step into that shower.

I want you to notice how your brain and your thoughts say don’t do it. They come up with all these excuses about why you shouldn’t step into the shower, and I want you to notice how you can walk forward into that cold water anyway. If you can do that, then your thoughts obviously have nothing to do with the final decision that you make, otherwise they would stop you.

This is why I have a cold shower every morning, just to prove to myself that what I feel like doing in my mind and what I know I should be doing are two different things, and what I should be doing is something I can always do, no matter what my thoughts or feelings tell me.

I hope that helps you. I know the idea that free will doesn’t exist is very challenging for people, so if it’s easier, just take it on board as: your thoughts are not free will. Your thoughts are not the decision making process. If there is such a thing as free will it’s not happening in the conscious awareness space.

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