“Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.” ― James Allen
“When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.
― Francois de La Rochefoucauld
To what degree is it possible to control our thoughts? Our mental health and success in life may well depend on this ability. If we struggle with addiction — especially sex or pornography addiction — our recovery may well depend on it. Many of us struggle with negative thought patterns — sometimes even intrusive thoughts — which rob us of our peace of mind, and keep us from making progress.
Think about it: the roots of both depression and anxiety have to do with thoughts we can’t shake — whether those thoughts are related to fears of what might happen, or a general sense of things going wrong and/or life being pointless. I understand that clinical depression and anxiety disorders have multiple factors, and may require extensive treatment, including therapy and medication. But many of us are “on the spectrum” for anxiety and/or depression. We may not be clinically anxious or depressed, but we struggle. The good news is that there are things we can do, as you’ll see in this article.
With many forms of sex addiction, the problem also centers around our thoughts. We mull over fantasies, or we obsess over a person we desire. Our destructive actions arise from thoughts that center around lust, loneliness, insecurity, and fear. For some people, the essence of the sexual struggle is mainly in the mind: near constant obsessive and intrusive sexual thoughts.
How do we change our thinking? How do we exert control over our wandering minds? Here are six keys that will change your life:
1. Accept the truth that you have more power than you know over what goes on in your brain
Nothing in this article will help you unless you believe its possible to exert control over your mind. You are not a victim. Having intrusive thoughts that defy your control is actually a rare problem, and of course requires professional treatment. But most of us aren’t in that situation.
The problem for most of us is not that we can’t control our thoughts. The problem is that we don’t want to. And even if we want to, we’re too lazy to do it. We have bought into the myth that our minds control us, that they flit around and fixate on things that we are powerless to manage.
This is a lie, and it’s keeping many of us stuck.
Please understand: exerting power over our minds requires training. I’m not suggesting that just by deciding to do this that we’re instantly able to affect our thinking. But we can, over time, change our patterns. I was really struck by this when I read a self help book written in the 1920s. The book is called “The Secret of the Ages” by Robert Collier. (Like so much of what I read, I found some things things in this book to be irrelevant, some things I disagreed with, and some things that were very helpful and profound.)
I was really struck by how adamant Collier was about our ability to control our thoughts, and his warnings about the danger of just letting our thoughts spin around in our heads. Listen to this:
We moderns are unaccustomed to the mastery over our own inner thoughts and feelings. That a man should be a prey to any thought that chances to take possession of his mind, is commonly among us assumed as unavoidable. It may be a matter of regret that he should be kept awake all night from anxiety as to the issue of a lawsuit on the morrow, but that he should have the power of determining whether he be kept awake or not seems an extravagant demand.
The image if impending calamity is no doubt odious, but its very odiousness (we say) makes it haunt the mind all the more pertinaciously, and it is useless to try to expel it. Yet this is an absurd position for man, the heir of ages, to be in: tormented by the flimsy creatures of his own brain.
“If a pebble in our shoe torments us, we expel it. We take off the shoe and shake it out. And once the matter is fairly understood, it is just as easy to expel an intruding and obnoxious thought from the mind. About this there ought to be no mistake, no two opinions. The thing is obvious, clear, and unmistakable.
“It should be as easy to expel an obnoxious thought from the mind as to shake a stone out of your shoe; and until a man can do that, it is just nonsense to talk about his ascendancy over nature, and all the rest of it. He is a mere slave, and a prey to the bat-winged phantoms that flit through the corridors of his own brain. Yet the weary and careworn faces that we meet by thousands, even among the affluent classes of civilization, testify only too clearly how seldom this mastery is obtained.
“It is one of the prominent doctrines of some of the oriental schools of practical psychology that the power of expelling thoughts, or if need be, killing them dead on the spot, must be obtained. Naturally, the art requires practice, but like other arts, when once acquired there is no mystery or difficulty about it. It is worth practice. It may be fairly said that life only begins when this art has been acquired.”
You might have noticed Collier saying that the ability to train the mind is “one of the prominent doctrines of oriental schools of philosophy.” This is also a clear teaching of historic Christianity. It may be less prominent, but it’s there, and we need to be reminded of it.
Far from being the victim of thoughts outside our control, the apostle Paul instructs us to “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
In Philippians 4:8 he tells his readers: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
In other words, discipline yourselves to think about certain things, and avoid others. This is consistent with what Paul also says in Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
We are transformed by the renewing of our mind. What we think about shapes what we become … and the fact that Paul suggests this assumes his belief that we can actually control what goes on in our minds.
This is also the obvious assumption in Jesus’ teaching. For example, when Jesus commands us: “Do not worry” (several times in Matthew 6:25-34), he clearly thinks that we are capable of exerting this kind of control.
Once a person is convinced that it is possible to exert control over their thinking — and not only that, but also that it’s required for healthy spiritual living, and obeying commands in the Bible — then they are ready to take steps to change their thinking. This is where the next keys come in.
2. Don’t try to stop thought with more thought
What do you do when your mind fixates on something that you want to stop thinking about, but keep coming back to? Recognize that you can’t win the battle of intrusive thought with other thoughts. You stop persistent, unwanted thoughts by doing something different, not just trying to think something different.
Get up from your chair, or step away from the desk. Take a walk. Take some kind of mental break from what you were doing before. Whatever you were doing when your mind started to spin and ruminate about something depressing, anxiety-inducing, or sexually triggering … do something else.
The change implied by “do something else” is physical. Moving your body to shift attention and focus to something else is often required. And if the thoughts keep coming back, even after doing something different, even after shifting focus and changing activities, there’s still something else you can do: talk to someone.
The great wisdom about this issue, accumulated through decades of experience from millions of people in the recovery community, can be boiled down to a simple instruction: Make a phone call. Call somebody. Get out of your own head. Here’s the amazing thing:
this pretty much always works
The only exception — in my experience of coaching hundreds of spiritual leaders and people in recovery — is when there is a diagnosable mental disorder that requires professional help … and possibly medication.
Making a phone call is so powerful and effective, it’s almost magical. If it’s so simple, and so effective, why doesn’t everybody do it? Why don’t we do it all the time?
Because we’re lazy. Because it feels hard. Because we don’t like to ask for help. Because often, when we are in the throes of negativity or sexual compulsivity, our tenancy is to isolate.
People won’t stop ruminating and make a phone call to a recovery friend because it’s easier to just let the mind spin. But it’s unhelpful at best to do this, and can be outright dangerous.
3. Write down or say out loud what you’re thinking
One of my favorite “old sayings” is this one: “Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through our lips or our finger tips.” Our thoughts tend to run in circles and / or flit around as random impressions.
Forcing ourselves to either write them down or talk them out with people forces a structure to them — subject / verb, action / consequence, etc. Putting structure of this sort to our thoughts often diminishes their power over us, because it exposes how unclear and jumbled they are. When we impose even the basic structure of language to these thoughts and impressions, something different often emerges.
It also frequently happens that, after writing something down or saying it out loud, we realize how ridiculous it is. Simply by expressing it, we see the fallacy. This often happens with our fears, or self-judgments. After writing them down, or speaking the words out loud, we realize we sound crazy.
In some ways, I liken this to turning on a light in a dim and shadowy room. Instead of vague impressions, we now see things more clearly. It’s not a monster, it’s pillow. You get the idea.
4. Pay much more attention to your input
Pay much more attention to the source — to what you put INTO your brain. What movies, TV shows, news outlets, and social media you put into your mind. What’s the message? Is it true? Is it accurate? Is it positive? Is it helpful? Is it aligned with what you want for yourself? (Look again at what Paul says Philippians 4:8 above.)
All too often, the information we’re putting into our minds is at cross purposes with our values and goals. That input eventually works it way into our thoughts, fantasies, judgments, fears, etc. The battle for our minds — the experience of “renewing our minds” that Paul talks about in Romans 12 — has to do with what we put into our minds. Garbage in, garbage out.
A recent article from Scientific American points out that what comes up as conscious thought is often something that has been percolating in our subconscious for a while. The thoughts that arise are often unbidden, and for this reason, many people feel that they can’t control their thoughts. These thoughts just “happen” to them.
We exert some power over our thoughts by directing our attention, like a spotlight, to focus on something specific. The consequences of doing so can be amusing, as in the famous experiments in which about one third of the people watching a basketball game failed to spot a man in a gorilla suit crossing the court. Or the consequences can be disastrous, as when a narrow focus prevents a driver from noticing a light turning red or an oncoming train.
Although thoughts appear to ‘pop’ into awareness before bedtime, their cognitive precursors have probably been simmering for a while. Once those pre-conscious thoughts gather sufficient strength, the full spotlight of consciousness beams down on them. The mind’s freewheeling friskiness is only partly under our control.
Thoughts appear in our conscious minds, and feel only partly under our control. But what we fill our minds with is completely under our control. Stop viewing pornography and over time you’ll notice how much less you’re obsessing about sex. Stop watching the fear-mongering TV news shows, and reading alarmist social media posts, and over time you’ll notice how much less anxious you are about the world.
Change the input, and over time, the output changes.
5. Train your mind through prayer and meditation
This is such an important topic that it deserves an article — or book — all by itself. Let me at least offer these insights here: When we pray, we inevitably find that we struggle with our thoughts wandering away from what we’re praying about. When we meditate, we experience the same thing.
Regular prayer and meditation — where we work through these distractions, and repeatedly come back to focus — are an essential part of mental and spiritual training.
In meditation, we calm and focus our mind. Christian meditation is the practice of repeatedly going back to a short verse or phrase from Scripture; sometimes even a single word, or name of God. When the mind (inevitably) drifts to other random thoughts, we gently bring our focus back to the word, phrase, or verse.
The Eastern Orthodox church has emphasized the practice of the Jesus prayer, which is a cross between prayer and meditation, for centuries. Taking their cue from a variety of short requests for mercy by people in the Bible, the Jesus prayer is the simple phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
In practice, the Jesus prayer involves repeating this request again and again. When the mind drifts to a person or situation, we focus our thought/prayer to that situation. For example, if we start thinking about a situation with our work, the focus of our prayer becomes, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me (as I face this work situation).” Then later, we might start thinking about something happening with our child. In that case, we would pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on (child’s name).”
Regardless of the kind of prayer or meditation we do, we will surely find ourselves struggling with drifting and scattered thoughts. In all traditions, spiritual teachers all offer the same counsel to practitioners who struggle with this:
Don’t worry about it.
This is what the mind does.
This happens to everybody.
In fact, you may have heard the phrase, “monkey mind.” The idea behind this phrase is that the mind wanders and jumps around uncontrollably like a crazy monkey. It needs to be tamed. As we engage in the practice of prayer and meditation, we learn to not be so bothered by this monkey mind. We make friends with it.
We just notice when it’s jumping around, and gently bring our attention back to where we want it to be. This is the key, and it’s the heart of the spiritual and mental training.
As we do this — noticing the drifting of our mind in prayer and meditation, gently bringing it back to focus — over a period of months, years, and then decades, the mind becomes progressively more calm, and we lose our fear of being controlled by it. We develop the habit of noticing when it’s jumping around to unhelpful thoughts, and the habit of gently bring it back to the focus we want becomes more and more routine. It gets easier — and happens faster — over time.
The important thing I want to emphasize here is that this is something we TRAIN ourselves to do. It doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t happen quickly. But it does happen. I can testify to that.
But don’t take my word for it. This is the message from millions upon millions of people through the centuries who have learned to focus their mind through training. A recent article in Forbes magazine details some recent research about the benefits of meditation. The article ends with this:
Meditation is not a panacea, but there’s certainly a lot of evidence that it may do some good for those who practice it regularly…If the research is right, just a few minutes of meditation [done regularly] may make a big difference.
So how about this: don’t take my word for it. But not only that, don’t take researchers’ word for it either. Try it yourself. Try praying or meditating for a month. See what happens.
6. Don’t believe your thoughts
Finally, always remember this: Just because you think something about yourself, a situation, or other people, doesn’t mean it’s true. You might be wrong. There’s so much you don’t know, and your perspective is often limited.
Earlier I pointed out how often, just by writing or expressing a thought out loud, we realize how foolish and misguided it is. Even if its untruth is not immediately obvious when we articulate a thought, talking about it to someone else might make it clear.
When we take the time, and risk the vulnerability to share our struggles, concerns, or fears with wise friends, we often find that other peoples’ views about us, or situations in our lives, are very different from our own.
A teenager might think, for example, that having her boyfriend break up with her is a terrible tragedy, but her friends and family will recognize how unhealthy and destructive the relationship was, and help her to see that this breakup is the best thing that could happen.
Sometimes we need other people, and maybe professionals, to help us come to terms with thoughts that we know are irrational, but we keep going back to anyway. This is the case with anxiety attacks. Listen to what Ami Dsu says,
The worst part about anxiety attacks is that you’re aware that they’re irrational and sometimes unexplainable, but knowing that gives no aid whatsoever. In most cases, it deepens the anxiety as you realize “if I know it’s irrational, why can’t I stop it… Oh god I can’t stop it” you begin to believe you are no longer in control of your mind. That. That is fear.
And that kind of fear needs to be challenged, but can only be challenged by talking things through with someone else. In our own minds, we’ll keep coming back to the anxiety, even though part of us knows it’s not rational.
Final thoughts, and an invitation …
I hope you find some of these ideas helpful. If you have questions, let me know. If you’d like to work with me on these issues — especially as they relate to your spiritual leadership, or recovery from addiction — let me know. You can reach me through the contact page.
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