The thoughts we have fuel our perception and give meaning to just about anything. You could be in a restaurant and walk by a nice couple and their baby. While your eyes register the baby, your brain thinks, “What a little cutie.” That same baby minutes later can go on a temper tantrum and the only thing racing through your mind is finding different ways to shut it up.
The worst part about our mind is that it ruminates on negative thoughts much easier than it does on positive ones. I can’t put my finger on the reason, but we tend to notice all the perceived bad things that happen to us rather than the good. A lot of our mental health issues stem from things like anxiety and depression. I’ll define anxiety as worry about the future and depression and sadness about the past. I have never heard of a mental diagnosis where people were overtly happy about the past or the present. I’m trying to get that type of disorder.
Witnessing Our Thoughts
The best way to not identify with our thoughts is to be witness to them. Think of your thoughts like music being played. You hear the lyrics to one instance of thought and then another song starts. Thoughts are very faint in the sense that we don’t even know that they are there until we pay attention to them. The impermanence of thought is so fickle. They change so consistently, yet we attach our identity to what we think. When most of our thinking is what we perceive to be negative, suffering occurs.
The thing about thoughts is that you can’t stop them. It’s a radio station that plays the hits and misses every time you recognize what you are thinking. Nothing is ever a one-hit wonder, sadly. The trick is to have no identification with your thoughts as if they didn’t matter because they don’t. The case could be made that the fewer thoughts you have, the more at peace you can be. This is why people engage in practices such as mediation. Once we start detaching our identity to our thoughts, peace can begin.
The only time a thought is meaningful is when we give it meaning. There are tons of thoughts that we pay no attention to. Thoughts don’t become an issue until we emphasize the thought. I know this is going to be a difficult task, but the goal when thinking about thoughts is to avoid the inner negative dialogue that we have with ourselves. When we follow the trail that leads us to our suffering it means that we believe in these thoughts. A silly mistake turns into, “Why did I do that?” That thought turns into, “Why am so stupid?” We finally land on, “I’m an idiot.” An occurrence turns into identity. We are giving these negative thoughts meaning. When we dismiss these thoughts, just like any other insignificant thought we have, it loses its power.
Thinking with a Negative Bias
The biggest reason why we find ourselves in anxious and depressive situations is that our mind typically defaults to negativity. The most used example that I’ve seen of this in action is the person who is driving on the freeway. Another car comes and cuts that person off. The default emotion from what happened is anger. We pretty much assume that the person who cuts us off is a jerk, but unknowingly, the person could be driving their pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth.
The worst part is that this single incident can ruin one’s day. If this were to happen during a morning commute, chances are the day at the office wouldn’t be such a good one. It’s almost as if we take a singular emotion and allow it to simmer all day as if we are cooking something in a crock pot. It’s kind of weird that our brain seems to react strongly to perceived negative events rather than positive ones. The same effect doesn’t happen if someone lets us over on the freeway.
The Need to Survive
Our negative bias can be attributed to our ancestors’ way before us. In the age of the caveman, there were only two responses; reward and punishment. Many did what they could to indulge in the pleasures of life, but equally did what they could to survive. For them to survive, they had to be very diligent to threats. That also means remembering potential danger so that they don’t find themselves in the same predicament. In this way, the caveman has put more emphasis on staying out of trouble rather than pursuing the pleasures of life due to the risk of dying.
Our evolution has not removed the negativity bias. We are still mostly in a survival mind state where negative events are much more powerful than the pleasures of life. A bad parent has much more of an impact on a child than a good one. In some cases, a good parent can be overlooked, or taken for granted. Most good things are taken for granted if we want to tell the truth. Our society doesn’t help. Our 24-hour news cycle covers more negative news than positive, by far. The negative news is way more attention-grabbing. It all has us living in fear. Instead of going after the love and happiness we deserve, we are afraid of failure and stay with the status quo.
Our negative bias stems from our selective attention. It’s been scientifically shown that our perception and awareness are not the same things. In many cases, our eyes can take in what’s going on, but our brains may not be fully aware of what’s going on. Have you ever been so focused on a task, that you can’t hear someone calling your name? Maybe you’re coming home, and your mind is on what happened to you earlier. You see your exit, but you miss it. Or how about singing your favorite song word for word, but don’t realize that someone’s sat next to you and has watched you jam out for a few minutes? It’s very hard to be aware of your surroundings when your mind is intentionally on something else.
The same thing can be said for negative thoughts. If our minds are consumed with negative thoughts, it’s hard to think of anything else. That’s why it’s kind of offensive to say something like, “Look on the bright side.” I don’t know if people realize how hard it is to look at a perceived negative situation, positively. Any insistence is known as toxic positivity. When put in a negative situation, it’s much easier to keep consuming the negative information, forgoing anything positive. I say all this, to also say that these thoughts aren’t real. because of subjectiveness in perception. But you knew that already, right?
Thoughts are Subjective and Can Be Changed
Now that we do know that our thoughts are subjective, which means that they are not all that meaningful, we have the power to choose which thoughts we want to give meaning to. We talked extensively about how our brains default to negativity, but what would happen if we consciously decided to identify with our more loving thoughts? I’m reluctant to say positive thinking because this isn’t about being optimistic. It’s about seeing the situation as it is and feeling loved and being Love anyway. When we have more loving thoughts, we can start to see the situation change without having to believe something good is going to happen. We accept what is and never let it change who we are in Love.
When we have loving thoughts, we seem to find the good within the bad. We see the trial as a learning opportunity rather than a situation that is meant to hurt us. when you’re no longer a victim, you no longer believe that the things we perceive as bad are here to hurt us. Nothing can hurt us. We take in the experience and learn from it, we forgive everyone who was involved, and we continue to be Love. We can do this without the common advice of getting rid of self-talk.