Let’s look at a few varieties of meditation for negative thoughts.
My approach is not to try to cool off negative thoughts and emotions, but to optimally process them and have you investigate first-hand what causes them. This is a much more empowering strategy long-term.
Mindful awareness gives us invaluable intel on our inner life and how we actively maintain negative states. You’re about to learn powerful tools you can use for the rest of your life, and you can start using them today.
Let’s first talk a little about negative thoughts and emotions.
Insights Into Thoughts and Emotions
To understand negative states of mind, we need to understand how thoughts and emotions work.
What you’ll discover with this meditation for negative thoughts is that thoughts continually come up in your awareness, and most of the time you get lost in them without knowing it, essentially daydreaming.
How many times have you got in your car, driven from A to Z, and had no memory of the journey? It’s likely you were lost in your thoughts that were completely unrelated to the situation. They completely hijacked your attention.
This happens to all of us multiple times every day. And if you start practicing meditation for negative thoughts, this is one of the first insights you’ll have.
It doesn’t stop there. Thoughts not only spiral into convincing stories, but they trigger emotional reactions, just like life situations do.
You have a small worry, then before you know it your thoughts have dramatised the situation. Now you’re thinking about the worst-case scenario, and a whole flood of emotions like anger, condemnation and fear come surging in.
For this reason, we can easily fall into spirals of negative emotion – sequences of negative thoughts associated with states like worry, fear, anxiety and stress, which then trigger emotions of the same sort. One thought is enough to ruin your day.
When this happens often enough, we can develop lasting problems like stress and anxiety. The triggering runs so seamslessly that we become permanently locked into cycles of debilitating thought and emotion.
And the sick part? We then get anxious or stressed about feeling those unpleasant emotions. Not only does the situation torment us, our own reactions to the event torment us. At this point we’re totally at the mercy of these unhelpful patterns.
Meditation for Negative Thoughts: Get Out by Going In
There is a way out though: we can use mindful awareness on our thoughts and emotions when they come up. By doing so we halt those thought–emotion spirals before they gain any momentum. And if we do find ourselves stressed and anxious, we can process those states such that they’re less problematic and less likely to drive our behaviour.
Here’s a handy insight: our thoughts wildly exaggerate things. When you do the exercises below, notice how charged and dramatic your thoughts can be. This produces equally distorted emotions.
Also try to become aware of their impermanence and transparency. I like to compare thoughts to cling film. Though see-through, cling film is sticky and persistent. Thoughts are similar. They are transparent and ghostly, but when we get lost in them, they suffocate and trap us.
If you experience thoughts fully, you realise that they’re really no more than impersonal, fleeting mental events. Emotions are much the same.
Meditation for Negative Thoughts
Now you have the background, let’s look at my powerful meditation for negative thoughts.
First up, during the meditation it’s crucial you have equanimity, or non-resistance, with your thoughts and emotions. Do not push away your negative emotions and thoughts.
Do the opposite.
Welcome them in, open up to them, untense the body as you experience them. This is a much more effective strategy. This deep allowance, paradoxically, is precisely what loosens their grip and prevents them from congealing.
It’s also crucial you know that we’re not doing psychoanalysis. When I say later “put the emotion at the forefront of your attention”, I don’t mean you make it an object of intellectual analysis. I mean you put it at the forefront of your moment-to-moment, sensory awareness. We want direct, visceral awareness of the thought or emotion.
Let’s start with formal, sitting practice. We do this at any time, regardless of whether we’re experiencing negative thoughts or not. This is like doing a fire drill so that you’re prepared in the event of a fire. Repeatedly bringing mindful awareness to your thoughts and emotions in a controlled environment helps you do so when it really matters.
Meditation for Negative Thoughts: Sitting Down
I say practicing sitting down, but in reality you can use any of these meditation postures. The key is that you set aside time specifically to meditate, with nothing else to attend to.
Make sure your posture allows you feel comfortable and poised, and let’s begin. Do this for 20 minutes a day to begin with, and check out my tips for maintaining a daily meditation habit.
Mindfulness of Thoughts
We’re going to work directly with thought to get intel on how our thinking process works.
Place your attention on the area where thoughts come up, which is usually around the head.
They appear as both images or sounds, and at any one time, you experience an image, a sound, or neither. Whichever it is, run the following three steps of mindful awareness:
1. Make Object of Focus: Bring it to the forefront of your attention, “closer” to you, “in front” of you.
2. Label: Mentally label it “See” if it’s an image or an absence of images, and “Hear” if it’s a sound or an absence of sound. This helps you maintain the experience at the forefront of attention.
3. Pour Attention: Now pour your attention onto the experience, detecting qualities like intensity, shape, location and movement. Try to get a clear picture of what it really is and what it does.
After staying with step 3 for a few seconds, you can run the three steps on the same experience again, or move to another one.
If you notice you’re getting lost in the thoughts, which is very likely, see it as an opportunity to run the cycle on the very thought that distracted you. And don’t browbeat yourself for getting distracted. We all do!
As you run step 3, I suggest you try to penetrate to the reality of the thoughts and emotions. This is how you truly realise what they are and loosen their grip.
Meditation for Negative Thoughts: During Everyday Activities
Let’s look at adapted version of these exercises for practicing during the day. I suggest you choose one daily activity that is both habitual for you and safe, and try doing this meditation for negative thoughts as you go about that activity. Some examples include brushing your teeth, hanging up the washing, walking and showering.
Use these three steps either before you begin the activity or to bring mindfulness into the activity you’re already doing.
- Posture: Pause the activity and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Stretch up through the spine, let the rest of the body hang down, and look gently towards the floor a few metres in front of you.
- Run Cycles: Start running the three-step cycles on thoughts or emotions.
- Start Activity: When you have stable attention, recommence the activity, with half your attention on the cycles and half on the activity.
Let’s talk about why these meditation exercises work. How could something so simple be so powerful?
Why Is This Meditation Effective?
I like to think that mindfulness retrains us towards optimal processing of everything we experience. We’re moving from the flight, fight or freeze response towards a mindful-oriented response.
We’re weakening our habitual tendency to identify with thoughts and emotions and unconsciously perpetuate them. This then breaks the link between these states and our behaviour. We can witness them as they arise and choose whether to engage or not. They no longer drive us and push us around like puppetmasters.
All of this means we create less of those downward spirals. Sure, objective situations still appear, and they’ll likely still be challenging. But we won’t catastrophise and worsen them. We can even confidently lean into the challenge, knowing that we have much greater emotional resilience.
And most of all, this all comes from first-hand insight. You’re discovering all this for yourself. You don’t need to believe anything. Nobody needs to teach you it or prescribe it. It’s in your hands, and you can always take it deeper simply by practicing longer and more diligently.
Mindfulness on Autopilot
When we start out with meditation, it’s separate from the rest of our day. It feels like we come out of our day to meditate and that it has little relevance to what happens outside it.
But over time, a huge change takes place.
Practice this mindful awareness every day both in stillness and during an activity, and over time it’ll become your automatic response to negative thoughts and emotions.
At that point, mindfulness meditation isn’t just something you practice when sitting on a cushion or whenever you fancy it. It’s now a way for you to process your experience whenever, wherever, and your chances of avoiding debilitating thought spirals are now much greater.
In the beginning, meditation is something that happens within your day. Eventually, the day becomes something that happens within your meditation.Shinzen Young
Meditation for Negative Thoughts: Disidentification
I can’t talk about mindfulness of thought and emotion without mentioning the long-term transformation this work promises.
When you first start this work, you’ll notice some level of increased emotional mastery in tricky situations, but you’ll fall off the wagon. It’ll feel like a battle between the you that wants to improve and the anxious, stressful you.
Then you’ll get to a point where mindfulness becomes your habitual response to challenging situations. This is a huge turning point, because it means there’s a much greater chance you’ll be in control.
And eventually, you experience a complete transformation. Having skillfully witnessed your thoughts and emotions for so long, you realise that you really aren’t them. This isn’t a nice thought, but a lived reality.
You realise that identification with them is no more than a habit, a result of poorly processing them over years and decades. You’re no more a thought than the chair you’re sitting on. Nor are you the self that they supposedly point to.
They flow through you with ease, with minimal reaction on your part. You have complete control over whether to act on them.
In the end, thoughts and emotions are no more than fleeting, impersonal mental events. And with enough training, you can discover this reality for yourself. You rest in your true self, the Witness that simply notices everything coming and going, while remaining free.
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