An End to Stinkin’ Thinkin’: Part 2 Controlling Thoughts and Understanding Their Place
Part one is here. I explain how I came upon the principles I’m about to lay out starting in this post…
Alright, we’re going to dig right in. First of all, for this whole series of posts to work for you, one simple concept must be embraced: We do not have to own the first thought that enters our noggin. I am not responsible for that first thought. That first thought is not me.
The second thought is me. That’s the thought that matters. The second is the thought I own.
What is a dream to the brain? Not the “wish I could vacation in a tropical paradise”, “be fit”, or “have a hundred million dollars” dream, I’m talking about the deep sleep dreaming.
On one hand, the dream is your subconscious taking out the garbage. That’s all. Thoughts, on the other, require my conscious mind sort through them and discard the bad, consider the rest and adopt the good. As I wrote in the first post in this series, I’m going to use my alcoholism to prove the theory from time to time. This doesn’t mean what I’m writing about only works for alcoholism. Alcoholic behavior was simply my impetus to change. It provided a level of urgency, let’s say.
I’m out mowing the lawn and the thought, “Man, a beer would taste awesome right now.” My mouth instantly starts watering. This is after 20 years of sobriety. While those thoughts are rare, they’ve never fully stopped. Now, must I consider this first thought with a second? Of course not! While that thought did enter my conscious mind, it has no validity whatsoever. A beer would absolutely have tasted marvelous up there on the lawnmower! My second thought, however, goes to the results of drinking a beer:
First, I don’t buy a six pack, I buy a case. I’m drunk before dinner, my wife is contemplating divorce before breakfast. I’m in jail within two weeks, unemployed a few months later. Everything I’ve worked for over 23 years is gone in a matter of months. This is what will happen if I drink alcohol. One beer will set off a mental obsession that cannot be overcome. I can simply crumple that thought up and throw it in the garbage, right next to my dreams from last night.
As another example, say the thought, “I think my wife is cheating on me” pops into my head. My wife has done nothing to indicate this could be true, so it doesn’t deserve to even be pondered. I crumple it up and throw it in the garbage (the real trick is where I go with that if I ponder it for that second thought: What is wrong with me that I would think this of my wife? Now THAT is truly something to consider. Normally I’m not paying my wife the proper attention she is due and I must correct that immediately but we’ll get into this in greater detail in a later post). In the past, either of these thoughts could start a chain reaction that would leave me utterly panicked.
I am not responsible for the first thought, I am for the second…
In the bad old days, before I figured out how my melon works, I used to contemplate every single thought that popped in there. I was under the mistaken impression that if a thought entered my head, it had validity and deserved to be contemplated. Indeed, I often used liquor to quiet it down. However, once I sobered up I no longer had that escape from the incessant chatter going on up there so something had to be done, and quick! You see, when a drunk sobers up, he usually has a trainload of trouble that must be cleaned up. There’s so much wreckage, one cannot possibly clean it up fast enough to keep from freaking out. Panic attacks are common.
That first thought pops into my head at 10:00 in the evening and I have to be awake at 4 am to get ready for work: My God, I’ve got the credit card bill to pay! And my head is off and running. Then I’m thinking about rent that’s going to be tough to pay because I have to pay the credit card, then I wonder if all of my legal troubles are taken care of. Then I wonder if there are warrants out for my arrest. I’m in a full blown panic attack now. “I think I’m dying”… “I’m going to have a heart attack and die right here and now, my heart hurts!”
That was a real situation I went through 23 years ago now. I literally thought I was going to die right there in my bed. The pain in my heart was adrenaline, not a heart attack, but this is the hamster wheel. My mind is jumping from one messed up thought to the next and I simply can’t quiet it…
The next day I talked to my sponsor about it. First he excoriated me for not calling him in the middle of the night when all of that was going on so he could talk me down. Then he taught me how to fix it. To stop the hamster wheel.
The key is doing the next right thing at any given moment. Once the day is done and I’ve done everything I could, I am done. Period. If thoughts creep in, the second thought is, “I’ve done all I can do today and I’ve done what is right. Tomorrow is another day and when it gets here I’ll do what’s right again”. I repeated this over and over again until the wheel stopped. As soon as another dark thought popped into my melon, I’d repeat it again until I stopped thinking. Eventually my brain got the message: “There’s a new sheriff in town, you’re not in charge anymore, so shut up.” It did.
Think of this as a line. At one end, I’m happy. At the other is a full blown panic attack. There’s a lot of space between those two. At first it took me a while before I figured out that I was heading down the path to that panic attack. The hamster wheel was already spinning before I realized it was even up and running. As soon as I realized what was going on up there, I’d repeat that line until it stopped. Eventually, that line lost its luster, and being a praying man I changed to a prayer that had to do with my recovery (I still use this):
God, I offer myself to You – to build with me and to do with me as You will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Your will. Please take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life. May I do your way always.
If you break that prayer down, it’s got everything – and when you’re hurting, that part; ‘”Take away my difficulties, that victory over them” might help another by my bearing witness that it happened’ Part is HUGE. As I practiced this, the length of time it took to stop the hamster wheel shortened. I began to recognize the hamster wheel picking up momentum. Eventually, over the years, I got so good at this that I could stop the hamster wheel before it ever started turning. I got so good at it, I could check myself immediately after the initial thought.
This is the first step to happiness and sanity. There is a trick to it though. It’s best when used humbly. Just sayin’.
This is the work: Find something, a prayer, a saying, something you can use to crowd out those thoughts, that can shut them down. Use either of mine if you like…
With diligence and a lot of practice, sooner or later your brain will get the message. Practice makes perfect, and it can take A LOT of practice. While this started working immediately, it took me between two weeks and a month to get a handle on when the hamster wheel was going full-tilt. It took another several months to get to a point where I could stop it before it got started. While this is happening, start working on doing the next right thing at any given moment. The idea is to give that prayer or saying backup…
More tomorrow, for part three. I’m up to five now.