As I walked downstairs early one morning to fix tea, for no apparent reason one negative thought after another arouse in my mind in rapid fire succession. I had just woken up, slept well and with every step I took I was negative, critical and judgmental. “My kitchen is so ugly. The cabinets are filthy. My house is a mess.” Negative thinking is what the mind does sometimes. Left unchecked, and allowed to run without constraint negative thoughts have a huge impact on our mental and emotional health.
Step 1 – Recognize Negative Thoughts
In order to change a negative thought, one must first be aware that she/he is having a negative thought. Mental awareness is the first essential step. If one’s mind is engaged in negative thinking one must recognize the negativity. Negative thought patterns may be obvious or inconspicuous. For example, thinking “I hate myself” is an obvious and strong example of a negative thought. “I never get what I want” is a negative thought, but more inconspicuous, and therefore harder to recognize. Negative thought patterns often organize around a particular subject, for example, self-worth. As we practice mindfulness of the mind, we will notice the obvious and “loud” negative thoughts, but as awareness grows, we can notice inconspicuous thoughts, beliefs and perceptions as well.
Step 2 – Pannatti Insight
The second step, pannatti insight, is a mindfulness practice. Pannatti mindfulness practice is simply naming your mental process. The mind can engage in many processes such as planning, day-dreaming, complaining, etc. Pannatti insight recognizes what the mind is doing and names the mental process. Gone unchecked, negative thinking patterns gain momentum. The thought “I hate myself” is followed by, “I never do anything right. I can’t even name one person who loves me” etc. On and on the negative thinking continues, with the negativity gaining intensity and becoming more irrational. Pannatti insight puts the brakes on the mental process of negative thinking.
To use pannatti insight, when one has a negative thought such as “I hate myself”, they would then say to them self, “negative thinking” “negative thinking”. When the next negative thought arises “I never do anything right” one might say, “wrong view, wrong view”. Maybe you have been making some mistakes lately, but it is not possible that you “Never” do anything right. Pannatti insight keeps us from believing the irrational nature of our negative thoughts, and objectively recognizes the thought as just another mental process that the mind is currently engaged in.
Step 3 – See The Impermanent Nature Of Negative Thoughts
The final helpful tip for changing negative thoughts is to see that your thoughts are impermanent. Like a constantly flowing river, your thoughts change moment to moment. If you have a negative thought, it is helpful to know that in time, the negative thought will be replaced by a different thought. Just give it time. Moment to moment your beliefs, perceptions and mental processes are changing. This is how the mind works. Knowing that thoughts are not stable and permanent helps us to not endorse or have buy-in to negative thinking.
I have used all these techniques to help control emotional eating. I have a sweet tooth and it seems once I start eating sweets it is hard to stop. My justification for having another piece of pie contains a subtle flavor of self-pity such as “I never do anything nice for myself”. I use pannatti insight to see this subtle form of self-pity. When the thought arises of “I want another piece of pie” I say internally “craving, craving”. The justification narrative will stop for a moment, and then it starts again. “I never do anything nice for myself” I recognize “wrong view” or “self-pity” .
I have come to really enjoy seeing the impermanent nature of my thoughts which helps to turn off negativity. I recognize that as I have gotten older, my likes have become dislikes and my dislikes have become likes. With curiosity I watch my mind and think “Well, that was an interesting thought. I wonder what the mind is going to come up with next”. I don’t have as much buy-in or believe the negative thought because I know in a moment, the mind will come up with another new thought.
Additional information related to mindfulness practices to improve mental and emotional health can be found in Zenergy Mindfulness available on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Zenergy-Mindfulness-Intersection-Buddhist-Psychology/dp/1641112301.