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Filter your thoughts against reality

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: Ten hints for living a balanced life

The French philosopher Descartes did more than a little damage with his famous ‘I think therefore I am’ move. In trying to solve the problem of doubt, he unwittingly created a modern pitfall of over-thinking and destroyed the bridge to the body and the emotions. What we were left with was the problem of dualism, the divorce of body and mind. This is much more prevalent than you think, and it is the root of modern ailments, from ideology to anxiety. In terms of the lockdown and pandemic, it is crucial to insulate ourselves against negativity and attacks on our mental health.

Much of contemporary malaise, depression and self destruction is linked to overthinking, ruminating on negative thoughts, and being trapped in the head. The intellect and thinking, while obviously important, have to be integrated with the affective, the emotional world of feelings, in order to be truly useful and a source of wisdom. It’s a delicate balance, obviously, with an overemphasis on emotion being equally unhelpful. The modern ailment however, is to be stuck in thoughts, racing and intrusive, which undermine our well-being.

The therapeutic approach of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has proved particularly effective in tackling this destructive thinking and reconstructing thought patterns in a healthier way. Ignatius Loyola is often described as the first CBT practitioner in the way he dealt with a particularly insidious thought (ref. William Watson SJ »). The ‘thought’ concerned the adoption of his new pilgrim lifestyle, throwing up obstacles and doubts about his ability to sustain it over a lifetime. He was able to recognise it for what it was, a deceptive and undermining temptation, and reject it completely. He was freed from the tyranny of safety and false desires to live an extraordinary life.

The key insight of Ignatius is that there are two voices speaking to us at any moment: one is from God and leads to life, while the other he calls the ‘enemy of human nature’ and leads to ‘death’. While this is primarily a spiritual insight, it obviously has huge implications for mental health and psychological well being. Ultimately, it boils down to consistently making life enhancing decisions, tackling the seductive demons and unmasking them. Ignatius eventually developed a whole system for differentiating the voices called discernment of spirits, to help people be wise to the deceptions and attempt at sabotage.

We can’t afford to be naive, listening to the wrong voice leads to destructive consequences. however, people tend to assume like Descartes, that if we have a clear and distinct idea in our heads then it must be true. It’s a recipe for disaster obviously. For example, a really common thought is: “I’m a bad person”. We tend to overly fixate on the negative anyway, and this thought is so persuasive and seductive that it can undermine a person and bring them to the pits of despair and self destruction. But on examination it is never true; we are all created good and though we can do bad things and make mistakes, this doesn’t reverse the fundamental truth.

Rather we need to filter and examine our thoughts, weigh them carefully and figure out if they are genuine or not. One of the key ways we unmask false thoughts is reflection and learning to listen to our own inner voice. This has traditionally been called conscience, but it could more accurately be called awareness or consciousness. There is an inner sense, or ‘nose’, that we can develop for deciding which voice to listen to. There is a palpable sense of unease, ‘wrongness’ and death that accompanies the ‘bad’ voice, and equally a sense of rightness, ease and life that accompanies the ‘good voice’. What can be helpful here is practicing reflection: building in a filter on the after-effects of experiences or thoughts. It is like looking back on an experience as if watching through the eyes of a wise and compassionate person, and seeing clearly what was good or deceptive and unhelpful. It is a skill that can be practiced.

10 summary points

  • Filter your thoughts and test if they are real
  • Check thoughts out with a trusted friend
  • Don’t dwell on negativity
  • Get into your body, walk, run, swim, stretch, breathe, anything that connects you
  • There is good and bad; decisions matter and passive or unreflective living ends up in bad places
  • Recognise genuine unease; let your conscience speak
  • Act constructively with compassion and integrity
  • Discover the meaning or purpose in your life
  • Don’t be discouraged by negative imaginings or projections
  • Keep the balance between things and feelings, either extreme is unhelpful