Defusing from Thoughts

In my last post I referred to the flaw in our minds through which we become entangled in anxious, depressing, obsessional thoughts. In this post I explore ways we can disentangle from them.

The time-honoured approach is that of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, in which we identify the thought, write it down and hammer it with facts, logic and counter-evidence. Exposing it for the nonsense that it is. A simpler, but similar approach is The Work, developed by Byron Katie in which you go beyond the thought by addressing four questions to it:

Is that thought true?

Can you absolutely know that it is true?

What happens to you when you hold that thought?

Who will you be without that thought?

Both these approaches work well for the majority of people, as I can testify from years of using both.

Another approach that can work well is based on the Stop technique, in which you yell the thought out of your head (either out loud or between your ears). Or breathe it out. Or visualise a stop sign on it. An amusing variation on this theme is described in F*ck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way, by John Parkin. That way uses the f-word every time you catch yourself processing judgments that you know are doing you no good. It works because using the bad word is aggressive on your internal critic or inner defeatist.

One limitation on all these approaches is that hammering the thought may not be enough; you still have to find something else to do to fill up the space in your head left vacant. Otherwise, the thought will most likely come back at you. As well as that you will also have to develop a replacement thought that works better for you and design some behaviours that will take you in your chosen direction. That’s one reason why cognitive therapists in the 1970s decided to tag on the ‘behavioural’ bit in their job description, recognising that ultimately change comes about when you change your behaviour, not your thoughts.

Over years of working with these disorders I came to the conclusion that the problem lies deeper than problematic thoughts. That it comes, in fact, from our wrong relationship with the mind, as I wrote in the previous article. This conclusion was delightfully supported when I came across Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) a few years ago. This simple, elegant approach bypasses problematic thoughts altogether.

The entire approach is based on building mindfulness. When we acquire the art of staying in present moment awareness, without judgment, we are then in a position to watch thoughts come and go without getting entangled by them. Exercising acceptance and curiosity, we can observe them for the kind of thoughts that they are: worries, exaggerations, obsessions, catastrophic predictions, self-judgments, etc. Avoiding fusion with those thoughts and taking the decision to try a different path. Then using a defusion technique to seal the decision.

There are dozens of ways to defuse, but here are a few that I teach:

The Bus

Imagine that you are at a bus stop and a bus comes along with the thought on its destination board. The bus comes to a stop in front of you and the doors open as the driver waits for you to board. You decide not to get on that bus today and wait for another. The doors close and the bus departs without you. You wait for a few moments and another bus draws up; this one with a different destination. ‘Self-fulfilment‘, for example. Boarding that bus you look forward to exploring all the ways in which you can pursue rewarding activities during the day ahead.

The Stream

You are on a boat floating down a stream on a warm summer’s day. Enjoying the sun, the peace, the cool water. To one side of you some leaves (or toy boats) are floating by. Some of these have those unwanted thoughts sketched on them. You watch them float by behind you, out of consciousness. On the other side new leaves/boats come floating by, with thoughts reminding you of some of the things you can achieve that day. You pick up one of these and focus on what you will do next.

The Beach Ball

Here you are in the sea in shallow water that comes up to your waist. You are holding down a beach ball in the water and on the ball is one of those pesky thoughts. Releasing your hands, you watch as the ball rebounds over your head behind you. You swim back to shore and focus on the day ahead.

The Mountain

You are a high mountain (alternative: you are sitting on the peak). The earth is far below and you are mindful of the peace and freedom around you. Further down the slopes clouds come and go and some of these contain unwanted thoughts. You watch as they pass by and are vaporised in the sun.

The Chatterbox.

This technique is described here.

The final step, still staying out of Junkmind, is to refocus on an activity that you associate with the things most dear to you: your work (if applicable), relationships, family, home, creative projects, health, etc. Ensuring that the activity you choose is capable of bearing your whole-hearted attention.

Summary. Defusion works when you are no longer in bondage to the illusion that your mind is a repository of truth. Exercising care and selection before allowing a thought into consciousness. Bypassing the thoughts that do not serve you and committing to the thoughts, desires and activities that reflect the healthy side of your mind.

In the next article I will discuss how to defuse from unwanted feeling states like anxiety and depression.

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