When I was a little kid throwing a tantrum, freaking out about dessert, or bedtime, or whatever it is little kids freak out about, my mom used to say, “One of these days I’m going to record you on a tape and play it back so you can hear what you sound like.”
Thankfully, she never did, to my knowledge anyway. I’m sure those tapes would have been about ten percent entertaining and ninety percent mortifying, and some things are best left unrecorded. But I get the point, and I even might have gotten it then. If, in a clear and calm state of mind I were to have heard my tantrums, I would have cringed, even as a child, realizing how possessed I had been, and maybe, just maybe, that would have made me more likely to catch myself before falling into the trance again the next time.
I thought of my mom’s tape recorder threat frequently during my first false starts with mindfulness meditation, as I tried to get some sort of handle on the all-important mental side of my training. I don’t know what I expected—that I would close my eyes, put my attention on my breath, and sink effortlessly into a state of perfect inner stillness from which I could instantly drain the inner reservoir of stress and attack the challenges of the day with poise and dignity. But that ain’t what happened. Instead, I slammed straight up against the humbling inner reality of my incessant stream of thoughts. And I’m not talking about goal-oriented, deliberate, rational thoughts, either. I’m talking about a churning cesspool of worry and distraction, a whole universe of mindless activity that had been going nonstop beneath the surface for who knows how long. It felt like I was being forced to listen to a tape of myself, and it was hard to stomach.
It seems insane, but the most insane part of it is that this is normal. This is the baseline: possession by a constant stream of thought that serves no purpose, that distracts and confuses, and that drains energy in a ceaseless and pointless inner activity. And yet, for most people, this thought stream not only has total sway, it’s considered “who they are”—their beliefs, their opinions, their fears and worries, their hopes and dreams. It all seems to make sense if you don’t look at it too closely, but if you were to record even a few minutes of your own thoughts and play the, back, I can almost guarantee you’d be shocked.
When it comes to the mental game, this is the opponent, and the opponent’s in you. And if you want to train your brain for mental toughness, you can’t just let this possession continue. You can’t just drown it out and hope it disappears if you ignore it. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to wrestle the angel.
How Positive is Positive Thinking?
When venturing into this territory, it’s all too common to fall into the trap of positive thinking. You may start to notice, for example, that a large portion of your thought stream is related to self-judgment, that you beat yourself up or treat yourself harshly over perceived failures, embarrassments, or shortcomings. Or, you may find you spend a lot of time anticipating disasters, worrying about negative events that could happen, but never really do; things you can tell are unlikely but that you can’t stop thinking about. You may look at all this and label it “negative,” and from there, presume that if you could just replace these “negative” thoughts with “positive” thoughts, that all would be well.
Well, maybe. But before you start packing your bags for that Tony Robbins seminar, it may be worth taking a little bit of a closer look at what thought really is, and why it tends so strongly to be “negative.”
Thought exists to solve problems. It’s an astonishingly effective tool when used well, and it has helped us not only survive among much stronger animals who would like us to be lunch, but also ascend to the top of the food chain on a highly competitive planet. Unlike our animal ancestors, we have more options than just running away or fighting when there’s danger. We can think about a problem, see it from different angles, make connections, and come out with a solution that can solve it not only in the moment, but in the future as well. This is how we innovate and create a world that is in many ways increasingly friendly to our needs and desires, both as individuals and as a species.
In fact, we love problem solving so much that when there aren’t problems, we’ll create them and solve them for fun. You could see sports in this light: we don’t really need to score more points than the other team, but we create and agree upon a scenario in which we have to solve the strategic problem of beating them. In the process, we keep our minds sharp and our bodies strong. All good all around.
So here’s where we need to get clear: as a problem-solving device, thought has an inherent bias toward negativity, and it makes sense that it would. If you can find the problem before it finds you, you’re much more likely to survive and thrive. Thought is negative. It’s supposed to be. So while trying to turn thoughts labeled “negative” into thoughts labeled “positive” may seem like a good idea on the surface, it is in some ways like trying to make your white blood cells less destructive. Destruction is what they’re there for. It’s the job of thought to be negative, to isolate problems, and to protect you through solving them.
(Source: Bev Childress)
The Real Root of the Mental Game
So does this all mean that we should we just let our inner thought stream have its way with us? Of course not. Constant self-judgment and worry are real problems, and they need to be dealt with to develop a relaxed and dominant mindset. They just need to be dealt with realistically. The problem is not that thought is negative; the problem is that, for most people most of the time, thought is malfunctioning because it’s working overtime, all the time, trying to solve problems that don’t really exist.
The question then becomes, why does your system think there are problems when there are not? Why is it stuck in this state of constant thought, even if you’re sitting in a hammock swaying gently with the breeze? It’s not from anything outside of you, since this thought stream stays with you no matter where you go, no matter what’s going on around you, though external events certainly have impact on it. It must be from within, and if thought is itself simply a reaction, a problem-solving response, then the trigger must be coming from somewhere deeper.
And that is, in fact, exactly the case. The perpetual sense of alarm, the sense that something is always wrong and needs to be fixed, comes from the most primal level of the nervous system, where stress and tension have their root. The constant stream of thought—call it “negative” or not—is the misfiring of the nervous system, the malfunctioning of an alarm system that doesn’t seem to have an off switch.
This is why, when you start to really take a close look at your own thought stream, you’re likely in for a surprise. Not only are the thoughts arising automatically, without your involvement or consent, they’re almost entirely incoherent. You can’t reason with them any more than you can reason with a barking dog.
How Do You Turn Off the Alarm?
Of course, there is an off switch, but it’s not on the level of thought. If you want to get out of your head, you have to get into your body, into the physical nervous system, where chronic stresses and tensions live, sending your brain constant signals that there’s a vague, undefined, but urgent problem to be solved. In all my training and experimenting, Neuromuscular Release Work (NRW) is the only method that does that reliably and effectively. Once you release the damned-up energies in the body that keep you in this stranglehold of thought, your whole system starts to mutate back into its natural state. You’re permanently “in the zone,” because all “in the zone” means is ordinary functioning unimpaired by the epidemic of stress, compulsive thought, and all that goes with it.
Of course, you’ll still be able to think. You’ll still be able to solve problems—do your taxes, find your way to the airport, plan your workout and nutrition schedule. But only when there’s actually a problem to solve. No more leaky boat. No more precious energy spent on imaginary problems and idle worry. Just smooth, effortless functioning, the way it was always meant to be.
Sometimes, the best way to get over it is to stop thinking and go do it: