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How To Stop Suffering From Your Thoughts
Embarrassing moments or anxiety - your thoughts are the source of your suffering.
Thoughts are far from harmless. The amount of undue suffering that our own, non-physical thoughts can have on us is monumental. We’ve all had times where our mind relentlessly goes over the same thoughts over and over again. It could be a fight or disagreement you had with someone close to you, coming up with a better response after the fact, or replaying the same hurtful words that were said.
This is undue suffering.
It could be an embarrassing moment that happened in front of your friends years ago. It plays on repeat until you can no longer physically cringe and you just want to gorge your eyes out while screaming. You brood over it. Reliving the experience, feeling those exact emotions that are forever intertwined with that memory. It becomes painful.
This, is undue suffering.
It could be planning something with friends or a date. The feeling of anxiety sweeping over your body as you think about everything that could possibly go wrong. I’ve had such strong anxiety where I can’t eat, or I throw up. I’ve torn myself up over non-existent outcomes.
This. Is Undue Suffering.
It is suffering that is caused solely by your thoughts. These collections of words or pictures that appear and linger in your head can sometimes turn torturous. It’s the main source of suffering that we as humans endure. Our minds are consistently stuck in the past or the future instead of the present.
The future is worth thinking about, and pondering the past has its uses as there’s many things that can be learnt, or prepared for. But after a while it can start to produce diminishing returns and suffering will follow. Our mind can produce the same thought hundreds or thousands of times. Stuck on that one memory. Forever churning it over.
This usually happens when we’re thinking without realising that we’re thinking. After a few minutes of autonomous thought you click and consciously realise that you’re going down that same rabbit hole. You subtly shake your head as if waking from a dream, “How did I get here, again?”
We don’t actively choose to think these painful thoughts and when we do actively think about them, we rarely walk away feeling better or like we’ve achieved anything productive.
It isn’t necessary to live like this. As a slave, strapped into a chair forced to rewatch the most painful experiences. This sort of suffering is a choice. You can choose to leave thoughts behind by getting up from the chair and taking your mind out into the world. You’re able to stop them in their tracks, prevent them from ever arising, or if they do arise, watch them dissipate so you do not have to needlessly suffer.
Sometimes I can feel my mind searching for an embarrassing moment. I have a list of unpleasant memories that it regularly visits. I can feel it reaching into the depths of the memory hole, trying to recover an experience that will force me to internally cringe. It wants me to relive a negative experience. It really is quite strange - I’m not sure if you have this feeling too. However, I am now able to successfully identify when my mind goes searching, I’ve been able to practice stopping it before it can find an embarrassing memory to linger on.
Would you like to know how to stop your mind from forcefully making these thoughts appear?
It’s simple, but requires active practice. You need to be able to bring your mind to your physical body, to the present.
First: take a sharp, quick, breath. This immediately draws your attention to something other than your thoughts and brings your mind out from inside itself. Next you want to continue concentrating on the physical world. Feel the seat you’re sitting on. Feel your feet as you walk on the pavement. Feel your hands grip the steering wheel. Bring your attention to a noticeable, physical sensation, there is always one in close proximity.
What you want is, instead of being distracted by thoughts and ignoring the physical world, choose to become distracted by the physical and ignore your thoughts - your mind can’t simultaneously focus on both. The spotlight of attention can be driven from your thoughts onto anything of your choosing. If the spell breaks and you find yourself lost in thought again, take another sharp breath and start from the beginning.
This is the practice.
My thoughts usually go at me while I’m in the shower, so I turn my attention to the water running down my head and body. I concentrate on that and breathe. I hear the water flowing through the pipes and it splashing against the shower floor. It’s about focusing on what’s happening in the present. If I feel the unwanted thoughts coming back, or I didn’t realise I was thinking them - that’s okay. I just bring my mind back to what is physically happening right now.
This is the single most important thing that I have learnt from meditation. It’s called mindfulness. Even though I’m rather irregular with my meditative practises, mindfulness has been an invaluable tool that I’ve had at my disposal. I don’t have to suffer from my own thoughts any more, and neither do you. At any point we are able to halt negative, unwanted thoughts from intruding into our lives.
Mindfulness is something that must be developed and worked on over time. You won’t be able to master this overnight. If you are determined enough to learn this skill and apply it to your life, then you have unlocked an ancient superpower that many didn’t realise existed.