Derailing the automatic (negative) thought train.
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
We all do it, we're actually really good at it. We've been doing it so long. You wake up and right away you find yourself aboard the automatic negative thought train. The lists, the dos and the don'ts, the what if's, the rehashing and rehearsing that you've come to know so well. The mornings are particularly busy, this is when the subconscious material readily available to the freshly oriented mind, floods us with information and powerfully overtakes any
real experience of the moment. Your attention has no chance.
Within seconds we are defending ourselves from an avalanche of thoughts that can override even the hardiest of hope and optimism. If you pay attention, you may notice that this is a train you've ridden many many times before. You've heard these thoughts, or a variation of these thoughts so often that they become automatic. The moment it enters our consciousness we find ourselves judging ourselves for even having them. Often these initial waves of thoughts lead to other somewhat related material and within 15 minutes you have touched every doubt-ridden, fearful-filled nerve and avoiding them at any cost.
Imagine what it would be like if instead of hearing, fearing and interacting first thing in the morning with negative thoughts, we could experience open ended, gratitude bound thoughts that expand instead of constrict. I imagine this gratitude bound train to look and feel very different. Mindfulness practices remind us to stay in the moment, to observe and become aware of not just the thoughts that rise, but also the judgment and interpretations that follow and the emotional feedback loop it places us in.
To change this, or at least to be able to exit the train whenever you want, takes time and practice. The thoughts will continue to surface, they are thoughts after all and they're generated by our wide network of memories, projections, traumas and imagination. However our response to them can be altered. Again, this takes time, practice, lots of practice. One way to decrease the impact of this negative thought train is to imagine yourself sitting at a train station and watching this train pass by. You may imagine seeing the content of these thoughts as passengers on the train, going about their business. As you observe the train, you notice how much part of you wants to interact, come aboard, set things right on the train, but instead you become aware of this urge and perhaps you can observe this part of yourself as well.
It's not a comfortable place to be, by the sidelines, watching the train go by. I invite you to sit with the discomfort a little longer and watch now a different version of yourself wanting to judge, interpret, not just the content of the train but also the lack of initiative on your part to interact, fix it somehow. Perhaps you can also observe this part of you wanting to do that. You might notice that as you sit with the discomfort and observe the internal events that have taken place, the charge, the impact of the thoughts might have changed. As you can imagine, this takes practice, over and over again. Fortunately for us each time we practice something, we reinforce its neurological connection. Each time we choose to observe, refuse to explain, judge, interpret or try to find meaning to the thoughts and the feelings and sensations these elicit, we reinforce this connection assuring some ease with the next practice.
So go ahead, put it to the test. Tomorrow morning come sit at the train station with me. We'll sit on the bench near the door and watch our trains come and go. However uncomfortable and despite the compelling context of the train, the feelings and sensations clamoring for our attention, we will consciously observe without judgment, without attaching meaning, as the trains derail from their well worn tracks.