Unwanted toxic thoughts can be a bit like dealing with monsters. Suppose your house happens to get overrun by monsters in the near future. In that case, you have three choices. Either you can feed the monsters, in which case they will stick around. Or you can fight the monsters, in which case you may get clobbered and defeated while the monsters only become stronger. Or you can do your best to simply ignore the monsters. If you choose to ignore the monsters, maybe they will go away or maybe they won’t, but even if they stick around, you will have learned to treat them with the contempt they deserve and they will have lost their hold over you.
Similarly, if we fight unwanted thoughts head-on, then we are focusing on the very thing we want to rid ourselves of, leading to a phenomenon that psychologists call the “Ironic process theory” or “the white bear problem.” Researchers have found that trying to directly suppress unwanted thoughts is about as successful as telling someone not to imagine a polar bear. The very act of trying not to imagine a white bear inevitably recalls the white bear to mind; similarly, the very act of struggling not to think toxic unwanted thoughts is sure to bring the thought to mind, creating a wearying cycle of mental exhaustion and frustration. What tends to work much better is to treat unwanted thoughts with the contempt they deserve, and that means that we don’t feed them and we don’t fight them; instead we focus on what is important to us—our values, our goals, our core beliefs—and do our best to simply ignore the toxic thoughts.
My earlier blog post, ‘Struggling Towards Holiness‘, has been published in the March/April issue of Touchstone. Touchstone has made this article available for those who don’t subscribe to the magazine at the following link:
“In our era, young children are continually being pressured to engage in self-expression before they are shown how to think coherently, and they are pressured to engage in reasoning before they are given the facts with which to reason. The result is not intellectual freedom but enslavement, for someone that is never taught how to think is by default trained to be a bondservant to the latest fad or fashion.”
Learning to lovingly ‘tune-in’ to what another person is feeling is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. I’m increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. For many people, the most they can hope to receive is a few “likes” to something they posted on Facebook—a crude substitute for genuine listening. But when we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. It is healing because it assures the other person that she (or he) is valuable, that she doesn’t need to feel shame about her vulnerability and pain, and that I love her not in spite of her vulnerability and weakness but because of it. For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient.
Russian Christians frequently emphasize the concept of spiritual struggle, as encapsulated in their word “podvig.” There is no English equivalent for podvig, but the term conveys the idea of a good hardship, a spiritual struggle, a God-ordained difficulty.
“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.
“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”
My friend, who we will call Trevor, pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his more general struggles with Christianity.
I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”
There’s an American maxim which says you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite society. It’s hard not to have some sympathy with this advice, especially during the election cycle. After all, just look at how our political debates have become an emblem of all that is degenerate in our political discourse.
Even among friends, conversations about who should be our next president can quickly become divisive and alienating, while frank discussion of political disagreements rarely proves constructive and edifying.
Well, I’m here to suggest the impossible: political disagreements, when handled right, can actually be constructive and relationship-building.
The sun was just going down as Maryām made her way through the narrow streets, trying to keep to back-alleys so no one noticed her. She had made this journey dozens of times before, always careful each time to do it slightly differently each time to avoid suspicion.
Her official name was Bushra, but after her secret baptism friends called her by the Christian name Maryām. She had converted from Islam to Christianity three years ago after her friend from work, Khadijah, gave her a Bible. This evening Maryām was headed to the house of Khadijah’s parents, who held secret prayer meetings every Tuesday.
I’ve just published two articles at the Taylor Study Method on the power of positive breathing. Part 1 looks at how stress and anxiety are deeply rooted in primitive survival instincts. Although directed at psychology students preparing for their licensure exam, the techniques I’ve shared can be applied by anyone wanting to better manage stress or reduce anxiety. There’s nothing particularly complicated about these techniques, which basically involve mindful breathing. Part 2 explores the science of mindful breathing, including research showing that mindful meditative breathing can increase the size of the brain, improve social skills, make it easier to achieve mental clarity and focus, in addition to increasing emotional intelligence, self-regulation and resilience. To read my articles, click on the links below:
In my workshop ‘Gratitude During Times of Suffering‘ I talked about the emWave technology I’ve been using to measure heart-rate variability. In this lecture, the cardiologist Dr. Trent Orfanos explains about the science behind heart-rate variability and why this is important within the context of stress reduction.
As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?