Jane Arie Baldwin

Personal Tools for Living at the Highest Levels of You

Tag: meditation

Are You Riding the Thought Loop Carousel? — 3 ways to jump off

Growing up I believed that thinking was the most important thing I could do. That as long as I was thinking I was living. I was my thoughts, and my thoughts were me. Each one connected to the next in colorful carousel of thought. I equated feeding the mind a constant stream of ideas and memories, feelings, and emotions with success.

When my thoughts were angry or mean, I felt guilt and shame. When my thoughts were positive, I felt happy and self-assured. My mood shifted with the wind because my thoughts ruled over my feelings, actions, and reactions. They controlled my moods and my thinking, cluttering my otherwise clear skies with clouds of doubt. Occasionally, those clouds would part, and the sunshine of happiness could come through.

I did not once ever question where these thoughts came from or why I was thinking them until after cancer. When the oncologist said I was cancer free I recognized a thought I’d been having, “You’ve had it once, it can always come back.” I heard it in a sing-song voice like on horror movie trailers.

That’s when I stood up to my thoughts to defend my dignity. My thoughts had taken it too far. Before that moment, I listened to my negative voice, as if it were a helpful friend. I saw negativity as a form of healthy skepticism that kept me cautious and alert. Now I realized I had allowed my thoughts to grow into a giant fear monster that kept me in a constant thought loop. I realized that my continuous flow of thoughts wasn’t helping me. They were repelling good, positive vibes and experiences away from me. And holding the door open for negative and unhealthy thoughts to live like a virus, like cancer, within me.

Thought loops can be tricky. When you think you’ve caught one and you deem it to appear in your mind’s eye, there is nothing there. They are like phantoms in the night or faeries in the garden. They can shapeshift too. One second, they send you fearful ideas and the next they remind you to stop and smell the roses.

Thought loops hook us, they engage and entertain us. They wind around our brains and through our nervous systems. They ignite adrenaline and coax anxiety. They fill us with fond memories and even make us believe that they are a part of our identity. Then, in the next breath, they have us question the very thoughts that have been keeping us company.

When fear and anger take over the thought loop takes on the dark hue of night. The carousel spins out of control. Feelings and emotions clash. Beethoven’s 5th mixes with Shostakovich in a toxic tonic for strings. The subversive cacophony belies the pretty lights that dance in the backdrop.

“I think therefore I am.” — Rene Descartes

I wanted to understand what Descartes meant when he said his momentous quote. For context, I discovered a crucial part of Descartes legacy; Cartesian doubt — question everything which you know to be true. In today’s world, this idea seems trite. We tend to question everything to the point of skepticism. To Descartes, doubt is the counterpoint to reason. Cartesian doubt helped make the last 200 years of scientific advancement possible.

Medieval society believed that humans existed because God wanted them to exist. Descartes did not doubt the existence of God; instead, he doubted the existence of humans as God’s wish. Using a series of theorems, he proved that God existed and thus matter existed. He proved, by extension that thought is the essence of the mind.

Revolutionary at its time, “I think therefore I am,” supported a new idea. It gave humans agency and with that independent thought and free will, ushering in the Age of Enlightenment. To Descartes, thinking proved our existence as conscious beings. With the question of existence solved, 18th and 19th-century thinkers forged an identity grounded in math and science. Equating thinking with consciousness did not satisfy the thinking mind. Beyond the Age of Reason, we continued to question our existence.

Then in the early 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre said,

“The consciousness that says, ‘I am’ is not the consciousness that thinks.”

With this idea thought had to expand to include ideas other than reason as proof of our existence. Consciousness is like a canvass and thoughts are the paints that make up the picture. Beings are the still, unmoving field of awareness and our thoughts are the moving pulsations in that field. Like a pitcher holding water or a sky holding twinkling stars.

The questions then become:

When I say, “I am,” am I identifying with my thoughts AS ME?

Or is thinking happening WITHIN my awareness?

Afterall, you are aware that you are thinking, right?

So thinking can’t BE who you are.

Eckart Tolle says that Descartes “I think therefore I am,” keeps us bound to an identity of separation from pure consciousness (aka God). Thought does not prove we exist and are thus separate from conscious awareness. Thought proves we are beings that think. We are akin to the painted canvass, a full pitcher, a sky full of stars.

Thus, thinking can only be a part of consciousness. Tolle explains, it is mental activity that hooks us into an addictive pattern of busy mind. This addiction zaps us of vital energy much like a fan blowing air out an open window.

When we are running a thought loop, we are either evoking memories of the past or planning for the future, sending our daily dose of energy in all directions. Practicing mindfulness brings us into the present moment.

1) STILLNESS

“Be still and know that I am God.” — Psalm 46:10

Stillness is priceless. The nervous system is the electrical system in our bodies. It is like tiny strands of metal moving to the beat of the thought loops that control our moods and reactions. Sitting in stillness and focusing inward, on the breath and subtle internal awareness, helps slow nervous system.

As a child hopping from the Baptist church with my Granny Pearl, to the Methodist church with my parents, and then morning Catholic mass at school, I understood this phrase to mean, “Shut up and listen to me!”

God was, to me, the old white man up in the rafters on Stephen Colbert’s show. The only difference was that he didn’t have such a great sense of humor as the Late Show God.

The somewhere along the way I started hearing the shortened version:

“Be still and know that I am.”

This version felt a little less Commander Punisher to me though I still could not quite get behind it. I got hung up on the “I am.” I noticed certain preachers (this was during the time of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker) would emphasize the “I am,” as if saying, “I am the boss!” In my experience, the “I am” created a separation where “Be still and know that I am,” meant, “Be still and know that He is.” It said, “You’re not worthy yet, keep trying!”

So I lopped off the “I am,” and found the quote that works for me.

“Be still and know that.”

Be still. Know that. That is pure conscious awareness. Some would even call it God.

 

2) MINDFULNESS

The mind does not have a sense of place. It is not our brain or body.

Buddhist Master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says,

“[The mind] is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects.”

The mind cannot help but move and pulsate. That is its nature. The mind is not at fault here. Our job is to quiet the mind, to question the thoughts that pulsate in our field of awareness.

“Your goal is not to battle the mind but to witness the mind.” — Swami Muktananda

Thought loops are a part of life. They are the constant pulsation of the universe. They can’t stop. And they won’t stop. The key is to observe our thoughts and to observe how we react to them.

Things are not happening to us all the time. We are making choices. We are not victims of circumstance in our day to day living. We make choices; they have consequences that lead us down our chosen/karmic path. To learn from those choices, we must acknowledge that we are both the doer of our thoughts and can also observe them — the picture, the pitcher, the cosmos.

Mindfulness teaches us the power of aligning awareness with intention. Awareness is key. When Beethoven collides with Shostakovich and you notice, that’s the first step. Then you set the intention to hop off the spinning thought loop carousel.

3) INQUIRY

I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious. — Albert Einstein

One of the most accessible ways of becoming aware of your thoughts is with Byron Katie’s work, by asking these four questions:

1) Is it true?

2) Can you absolutely know it’s true?

3) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

4) Who would you be without the thought?

These four questions help to identify the thoughts that create the thought loop. When we notice our thoughts, we can question our beliefs around those thoughts. These questions expose the fallacy of the thoughts. They question our investment in each thought. Turning the thought on itself transforms us, in an instant, from the doer to the observer of our actions.

In a way, Byron Katie’s approach is an evolution of Cartesian doubt. It engages us in the intensive inquiry of the thoughts themselves. Once we recognize when we are spinning on the thought loop carousel, we can use doubt in its most valuable form. That is, to question what is true or not, to break up the thought loop.

Byron Katie’s inquiry works well with my scary thought, “You’ve had it once, it can always come back.”

1) Is it true?

Yes. The answer the first time is always yes. You think it. Therefore, it is true, right?

2) Can you absolutely know it’s true?

Well, not when you put it that way.

3) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

I am angry. I’m scared. I’m pissed off, dammit!

4) Who would you be without that thought?

I would be Jane, plain and simple. A person at peace without that stupid thought. Happier.

It took me many rounds of inquiry before that thought lost its charge. Wrapped up in that thought were layers of belief around not deserving to live a full life. I had to work to make choices for strengthening my sense of value, my self-worth, and self-esteem. I had to recognize the thought loops going round and round in my mind. I had to jump off the thought loop carousel, get off that crazy thing.

I believe Descartes, the father of analytical geometry, would be proud of where the Age of Reason has landed us. Scientific advancement has evolved from the Atomic Age to the Subatomic Age. Einstein’s work on the relationship of energy to mass proved that every atom is filled with energy. On a microscopic level, the world is pulsating with energy.

New studies are showing that our thoughts and emotions affect what goes on inside each atom, in our genes. The science of epigenetics studies the changes in a gene’s function by focusing on specific signals that turn the gene on and off. Through epigenetics, we know that changes in diet, stress level, mindset, and other lifestyle choices control gene expression for many of our genes. Therefore, while thinking is not who you are; thinking does affect who you are.

Instead of Silencing Your Inner Critic, Find Your Beginner’s Mind

Listening to the critic within generates a series of negative thoughts that when believed as truth can be detrimental to your performance, your relationships, and your health. Ignoring or reprimanding unwanted thoughts, the shoving them under the rug technique, can cause them to intensify. The solution to overcoming the inner critic is to have a beginners mind. To bring curiosity and play into the mix and find your flow within the chaos of the moment.

FOCUS

Just the other day, I stood in front of a room full of people reciting a lengthy poem I had memorized by heart. Many times in my living room I practiced my lines, with only the sleeping cat as a witness. Driving in traffic, I linked the words and phrases together in perfect cadence. Alone, the lines poured out of me with no problem.

In a banquet room with women seated at round tables after lunch, the lines would flow and then sputter.  Not in the ideal manner I had planned but in the messy, perfect way that so often accompanies creative work. I held the pages of the poem in my hand in case I needed them for reference. In the end, I did need to glance at them three or four times. I kept my focus on the message I wanted to transmit, the big picture of how pain and redemption move through a lineage. All the while, batting away the critic with stealth, Tai Chi-inspired movements.

 

CONTEMPLATION

Of course, moments where the words did not come, my inner critic gladly showed up to fill the vacuum. These days I see the judgment that wants to take over as John Goodman’s character, Sulley, in Monsters Inc. He’s big, colorful and at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to mess up the process. He’s just doing his job.

Contemplation, from the Latin meaning, “To gaze or behold,” is like thinking with your feelings. Where rather than words and concepts coming up and being put together like a puzzle to be solved, thoughts merge with feelings to create a blanket of experience from which to act. Contemplation offers you options other than the inner critic to feel or think.

The inner critic, guided by the ego, is not an excess piece of flesh that can be lopped off on a whim. The ego wants identification with the self. Being empowered in the ego is not sustainable because it leads directly down the path to suffering. I can hear my mom’s voice in my head quoting the Book of Mathew, “The path to hell is wide but gets narrow, the path to heaven is narrow and then gets wide.”

Personal development techniques so often focus on the ego as a problematic. We think that if we could only calm our egos, trick them, or get rid of them all together we could be a better, stronger, more enlightened humanity. If subordinating the ego worked then we would have abolished suffering long ago.

 

MEDITATION

When I first began to write poetry and short stories the inner critic was the mayor of my entire internal space. I judged everything. Only the most exemplary and perfected works of others that had received the highest accolades were deemed any good by the standards I had set. I was frozen, unable to even finish writing a sentence without pressing the delete button and erasing every single word. “Who was I,” I wondered, “to think that I had anything to say.”

Meditation, sitting in stillness while focusing my mind on my breath provides a supportive place from which to watch what’s going on around me minus the negative filter of the inner critic. To practice observing my thoughts and then letting them go without identifying with them has allowed me to reclaim the real estate of my mind that the inner critic once lorded over. Softening my attachment around what I define as me and who I am has given me the freedom to express myself creatively that I would not have been able to do without meditation.

A developed inner critic, much like a wild animal, needs focused attention, compassionate understanding and a little playful curiosity. What you have to say is essential. Your words need to come out, and when expressed fully they can be transmitted to others in a way that touches the heart of each person who hears them. Creativity takes courage. It takes a willingness to try new things without the filter of the inner critic, or at least an inner critic that you tame through committed focus, intent contemplation, and consistent meditation practice.

 

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