By Adam J. Pearson
Introduction: The Cost of Stories That Argue With Reality
We’ve all had this experience. It’s so basic and universal that it seems to be part of the human condition. I’ve heard friends express it in Asia, Africa, North America, South America, and Australia. The experience goes something like this: a painful thought arises in your mind. Maybe it’s something like “I’m a failure,” or “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m missing out,” or “no one cares about me,” or “I’m incapable of making it in this world.” What happens next?
The most common thing that tends to happens for human beings across the world is that after the painful thought arises within our mind, we believe it and we assume it says something true about “me” (Brown, 2015). What happens then? We suffer. We hurt. We become irritated. Or angry. Or depressed. Or anxious. Or worried. Or afraid.
Our minds use the painful thought to weave a story about us as deficient, bad, or unworthy. Then we carry that fiction within us, interact with others on the assumption that it’s true, and feel all the feelings, live all the experiences, and think all the thoughts that flow out of it. What was once simply a thought becomes the basis of an identity. And when a false belief becomes the basis of an identity, we tend to forget who we were before we began to believe it. Lost in our roles, we live like actors who became so immersed in their parts that they forgot who they truly were.
The Power of Troubling Thoughts
Thoughts are potent; they hold the power to organize the sensations our senses receive about the world into patterns that tell us the “meaning” of what we’re seeing, hearing, and experiencing (Brown, 2015). When we believe troubling thoughts, we perceive a troubling world. In effect, when we believe a fearful idea without questioning it, we end up living in a Matrix projected by the agonizing thought, a false world that we wouldn’t see at all if only we ceased to believe in the lie that gave birth to the projection.
Uninvestigated ideas can motivate us to weave stories about ourselves and other people that are totally out of sync with reality; moreover, the more we believe them, the more we tend to act them out. In Rising Strong, Dr. Brene Brown (2015) calls our tendency to concoct fictional tales about our experience confabulation.
A confabulation is a lie told honestly; it’s a thought that isn’t objectively true, but that we find ourselves sincerely believing anyway. A confabulation creates a script that we perform or act out when we believe it. Confabulations can wreak havoc on our lives when they turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, that is, fictions that we make true by acting in ways that push others to act as we expect them to act (Weaver, Filson Moses, & Snyder, 2015).
Confabulation in Action: Paranoid Defensiveness
If this idea still feels a little abstract, let’s consider a concrete example. Suppose a man thinks up the confabulation that “people are basically hostile.” He believes this thought without testing it against the full body of available evidence. As a result of believing the lie that his mind fabricated, he becomes guarded, closed off, and suspicious around other people. He becomes hypersensitive to what innocent remarks that he perceives as slights and insults from other people (Eiksson, Kemp, Gorsuch, Hoke, & Foy, 2001). When he feels attacked, he gets defensive and aggressive and attacks other people preemptively.
Because he attacked them first, other people respond by getting defensive and attacking him back. Thus, his behaviour causes other people to behave in the ways his confabulation made him expect them to behave. When they get defensive as a result of him attacking them, he takes their behaviour as proof that his lie that”people are basically hostile” was true from the beginning. The ironic reality is that he only made this lie seem true by treating people in ways that caused them to react according to his story that people are fundamentally aggressive. In this way, the lie that his mind concocted about other people turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy: a fictional belief that leads us to treat other people in ways that inspire them to behave as we expect them to behave. “Defense,” as Byron Katie writes, “is the first act of war” (2003).
Point: The Thoughts We Believe Shape Our Interactions and Experiences
Can you see the amazing power that confabulation and self-fulfilling prophecies can wield over our lives? Simply put, believing our thoughts without questioning to make sure that they are true can make us suffer both abundantly and unnecessarily. When we believe our confabulations, we risk innocently hurting others and ourselves in ways we never would if only we had effective tools to help us wisely handle our stories about the world. In this article, I’ll share with you four of the most powerful keys to inner freedom that I’ve discovered thus far, but before I do, however, there’s an important point I need to make:
You’re not a slave to your thoughts.
I’ll say it again for emphasis, because it can’t be stressed enough:
You’re not a slave to your thoughts.
You can’t be. Not ever. Why not? Here are three key reasons. Firstly, your ideas can’t bind you because your thoughts aren’t you. You were around before they got here and you’ll still be here when they’re gone. Painful thoughts come and go, but you remain, as the living, breathing, observing presence that witnesses them arise and fall. Therefore, they can’t be you. You exist beyond beyond them. Thoughts are like fleeting images in an effervescent film, and you remain as their projector, even after they cease to play.
Secondly, although the proposal may sound radical, you are not required to believe a thought for the simple reason that it happened to pop into your head. Contrary to what Rene Descartes may have suspected when he said “I think, therefore, I am,” a thought that arises in my mind isn’t any more “me” or “mine” than an image of a table projected on my retina (Watson, 2007). It’s simply an experience that comes and goes like any other. Moreover, many of the thoughts that pop up in my mind slipped in there long ago when other people said them to me and I forgot their sources over time. In this way, they began to pose as “my ideas,” when in truth, they never were. Because this has happened so many times, I’ve come to see that what seem to be “my” thoughts often aren’t at all, and thus, I am free to question them and find out their truth for myself. You are too. This is good news!
Finally, you’re not a slave to your ideas because there are ways of loosening their hold on your body-mind and exploring the possibilities afforded by a life that lies beyond our limiting ideas. There are ways of letting ourselves experience the body sensations that zooming into our thoughts can lead us to ignore. There are ways of witnessing these thoughts mindfully and using the body’s own physiological intelligence to release traumatic tension from our psoatic muscular systems. There are ways of inquiring into stories that clash with reality and finding the truth for ourselves. In short, there are valid and reliable tools that can free us from the prisons of painful thoughts and the lingering traces of trauma.
In this article, I will introduce four of the most effective tools I have ever encountered for exploring freedom from painful thoughts and trauma, namely, body sensing, trauma-release exercises (TRE), mindful witnessing, and Byron Katie’s the Work. I invite you to add these practical keys to freedom to your own personal toolbox of coping tools to help ferry you through the struggles and sometimes stormy seas of daily life.
These four keys to freedom can best be seen as as springboards for experience. As mere words on a page, they aren’t very helpful; however, if you experiment with them, try them out, and see what happens, you can taste their enormous potential to move you into a happier, more peaceful, and freer life for yourself. Please don’t take my word for it, though; you are free to test drive these Lamborghini tools on the rocky roads of real life and see how well they help you navigate its winding turns, soaring hills, and plummeting slopes.
Freedom Key #1: Body Sensing: How to Feel the Effects of Thoughts in the Body
If we don’t simply believe our painful thoughts, as we tend to be naturally inclined to do, what can we do instead? The first practical key to freedom is body sensing.
Body sensing is the process of feeling the sensations that arise in the body in response to a given thought and allowing the body to naturally process these sensations.
How do you do body sensing?
- Notice that a painful story is arising in your mind, but instead of focusing on the idea itself, drop your attention into the body. Scan your attention through your body and see what’s going on in different areas:
- Allow your attention to relax into the body’s sensations. Invite the body to feel whatever it needs to feel. If you are in a private space, you can even lie down on the floor and invite your body to move any way it wants to. Allow your intuition to guide you. If you feel like your arms, legs, or any other parts of your body would like to shake or move in a particular way, allow them to do so.
Stressful thoughts tend to produce associated body sensations that body sensing can reveal to us. For example, stress and anxiety tend to increase the heart rate, render breathing more shallow and rapid, and because the stress hormone cortisol suppresses immune system functioning, even make us more vulnerable to disease (Sachinvala, von Scotti, McGuire, Fairbanks, Bakst, Mcguire, et al., 2000). Eugene Gendlin’s classic book Focusing develops body sensing even further as a tool to release tension and develop our intuitive connection with the body.
In this video, he introduces his unique approach:
When you first notice a painful thought arising, body sensing or Gendlin’s focusing offers a useful way to explore what’s going on in the body in response to the thought, a helpful first step towards achieving freedom from its apparent grip on the functioning of the body-mind.
Freedom Key #2: Trauma Release Exercises (TRE)
To build on the insights you gain from your body’s sensations in relation to a painful thought and even learn to physically release them, a second powerful coping tool is the five simple movements that are collectively known as trauma-release exercises (TRE).
Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) are five simple exercises that harness the body’s natural ability to release itself from physical trauma and tension.
Research into the way the body responds to trauma has revealed some interesting insights about its natural ability to unravel its own tension. It turns out that when we are traumatized, the core flexor muscles of the startle response known as the psoas muscles–which connect the spine, pelvis, and legs–tend to grow rigid and tense the body into a defensive posture designed to protect its core from harm (Berceli & Napoli, 2006).
When most mammals, such as polar bears, are traumatized, their sympathetic nervous system freezes their bodies up to protect itself through the concerted tensing of the psoas muscles (Berceli & Napoli, 2006). As soon as the danger has passed, however, bears and other mammals tend to enter a state of uncontrollable shaking called neurogenic tremoring; in which their muscles literally shake out the tension of the sympathic nervous freeze response. The bears experience this tremoring as a pleasant releasing of sustained muscular tension; once it is complete, a state of deeply pleasurable physical relaxation results. An example of neurogenic tremoring in action in a polar bear can be seen in the video below:
Here’s the twist though; human beings have the capacity to interrupt this natural process of trauma release! In many people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example, the tension of the trauma state can linger for months or even years in the body because it hasn’t had a chance to naturally release its own defensive muscular tension (Eiksson, Kemp, Gorsuch, Hoke, & Foy, 2001). Encouragingly, however, there are five research-supported exercises that we can practice to trigger the body’s natural neurogenic tremor response.
In the video below, you can see examples of neurogenic tremors induced in humans who have practiced the simple sequence of trauma-release exercises; this shaking is purely uncontrolled and automatic. When it is over, much like our fellow mammals, we experience a state of profound physical relaxation that is extremely pleasurable and offers concrete physical evidence of physiological trauma release:
How do you do TRE?
In short, with body sensing and trauma-release exercises (TRE), you have powerful body-work tools to unravel the physical tension of trauma and the bodily sensations that attend troubling thoughts in ways that are simple, powerful, and immediately effective.
Freedom Key #3: Mindful Witnessing
How do seasoned meditators like the monks I met in Laos and Thailand observe the workings of their minds? Their secret is contained in a third practical to freedom: mindful witnessing.
Mindful witnessing is the process of nonjudmentally watching our thoughts arise and subside without getting swept away by them or criticizing ourselves for experiencing them.
What does mindfulness involve? John Kabat-Zinn (1990) lucidly breaks mindfulness down into seven concrete foundations:
(a) nonjudging—being aware of judging and reaction to inner and outer experiences;
(b) patience—understanding and accepting that sometimes things must unfold in their own time;
(c) beginner’s mind—seeing everything as if for the first time;
(d) trust—taking responsibility for being yourself and learning to listen to and trust your own being;
(e) nonstriving—realizing that there is no goal other than for you to be yourself;
(f) acceptance—seeing things as they actually are in the present; and
(g) letting go—releasing thoughts, feelings, and situations which the mind seems to want to hold on to (Berceli & Napoli, 2006).
Part of mindfulness practice involves body sensing, which we have already explored; in effect, body sensing can be thought of as mindulness of the body. However, we can also be mindful of our thoughts.
How do we mindfully witness our thoughts?
- Be aware of your body sensations following the steps of body sensing described above. Feel the inner sensations that are present in your body; for example, feel into your hands until they start to tingle and you can feel the aliveness that is present there. Notice if your chest or back feels tense. Allow each body sensation to be without trying to push it away or manipulate it. Is hunger present? Is there alertness or tiredness? Simply and naturally invite the sensations that are presently arising to be felt and acknowledged within your body. Notice any sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that may be present without judgment and let them go.
- Be aware of any emotions that may be present and treat them in the same way. Notice them, acknowledge them, and simply allow them to be. If you notice judgment arise for yourself for feeling these emotions, mentally label it “judgment” and mindfully witness it in the same way.
- Notice that you are breathing. Allow your attention to rest on your breath. When you inhale, know that you are breathing in. When you hold the air in your lungs, feel the feeling of your expanded chest or diaphragm. When you exhale, know that you are breathing out. Allow your attention to gently rest in your breath in this way.
- Notice that thoughts are arising. Instead of getting involved in, and carried away by, each thought, simply label it “thinking” and watch it move through your mind like a cloud through the sky. Notice how quickly each thought follows the last and how slow or fast they come, how much of a space there is between them, and what sensations or feelings ripple through your body in response to the coming of each thought.
- Gently become aware of the space between the thoughts and relax your attention into that peaceful gap. If thoughts arise, notice them arise and watch them fall away on their own. When thoughts are absent, notice the clear space of your awareness through which the thoughts come and go. Continue to nonjudmentally notice your body sensations, emotions, thoughts, and the awareness between your thoughts. If judgment or resistance arises, simply acknowledge it in the same exact way and see that it, too, follows the same natural arc of arising and subsiding as all other thoughts and feelings.
Mindful witnessing is a useful tool because we can practice it anywhere, whether we’re walking through a park or sitting in traffic. I invite you to use mindful witnessing to tune into your present experience and gain some objective distance through which to observe the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise within you (Follette, Palm, & Pearson, 2006). When we process painful memories mindfully by focusing on the present moment, we can increase our psychological flexibility and reduce emotional avoidance and suppression (Follette, Pollusny, and Milbeck., 1994).
As you mindfully witness your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you may begin to see that these arisings are not intrinsically personal; they are simply impermanent experiences that come and go like light through the eyes, sound waves through the ears, or pressure on our skin. As we begin to learn that the phenomena that arise within us are not personal, it becomes easier to relax our hold on them and calm our extreme reactions to phenomena. Mindful witnessing helps us to become attuned to the present moment and shift from being engrossed in a story to being able to objectively observe its mechanics as if we were an outside observer of our own minds.
Freedom Key #4: Inquire Into the Painful Thought with Byron Katie’s the Work
You may be wondering: What can we do if we find that we have already started to believe in a painful thought, or that we have been holding on to a painful story for years?
Thankfully, there is a wonderfully practical tool that can help us in these situations as well. Whereas the other techniques worked through bodily responses and intuitive witnessing, this one works through active inquiry or questioning. Instead of blindly believing our confabulations, we choose to look within for ourselves and see if the thoughts that scare, anger, or sadden us are even true at all.
If we find ourselves believing a painful story, this next key to freedom can weaken the hold of this belief by questioning it. This very powerful, simple, and easy-to-learn method is Byron Katie’s the Work. It’s simple enough that children can do it and powerful enough that adults can use it to meet even the most emotionally-charged stories with an openness to truth that can radically change the way we see the world.
How do you do the Work?
Write down the thought you want to question on paper so that the mind can’t get carried away by its story and forget the thought it wanted to question.
Consider the thought on the page before you (e.g. “my father didn’t love me enough”). As Byron Katie explains, “the Work is meditation. It’s about opening to your heart, not about trying to change your thoughts. Ask the questions, then go inside and wait for the deeper answers to surface.”
The Work is four questions and a turnaround. For the first two questions, we are only encouraged to limit our answers to a simple “yes” or “no” in order to prevent the mind from getting carried away by a story and keep it focused on the inquiry at hand.
Remind yourself of the thought you are questioning and ask yourself:
1. Is it true?
Your mind may have a knee-jerk response to this question like “yes, of course because…” or “in a sense, yes…” or “well, partly but…” Be patient with these initial thoughts and wait for a simple “yes” or “no” to come. Whether you answer “yes” or “no” to the first question is perfectly fine. If you answer yes, continue to question two. If you answer no, continue to question three.
For question two, consider the thought that you are exploring and ask yourself:
2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
Once again, wait for a simple “yes” or “no” to arise from within. Avoid allowing the mind qualify or attempt to concoct a detailed answer to this question; simply allow it to answer “yes” or “no.” Regardless of which answer emerges, proceed to question three:
3. How do I react when I believe this thought?
Attempt to be as honest as possible about your how you behave and react while you believe this thought to be true. List the ways you think, feel, act, and treat others while you believe this thought as frankly as possible. Remember that no one but you will see these answers, so there is no risk in being honest; you will not be judged. Frank honesty helps us see the truth that will set us free.
The purpose of question three is to show the effect that believing this thought has on your actual life. The more honest you are, the more conscious you will become of the power that the belief holds over for you. The more conscious you become, the easier it will be to shift into freedom in the steps that follow.
When you are ready, continue to the fourth and final question and ask yourself of your target thought:
4. Who would I without this thought?
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in your life and in the presence of the people with whom you interact if you were totally unable to ever think this thought again. Look at yourself free from this thought in your own imagination: How do you feel? How do you interact with others? How do you behave? This fourth question allows us to envision a life without the painful thought.
With these four questions, we have loosened up the thought enough that we can now turn it around to examine it from a different angle and hold it up against the facts.
There are three ways to do a turnaround. We can turn the thought around:
1. To the Opposite: if the thought is “she hurt me,” turn it around to its opposite (“she didn’t hurt me”) to find evidence for the opposite possibility. List at least three examples of how this turnaround could be as true or truer than the original thought.
[Note: if the thought is an “I thought” like “I’m not good enough to be loved,” the turnaround to the opposite is the only turnaround available, which, for this example, can become something like “I’m worthy of love”]
2. To the Other Person: If the thought involves a judgment of someone else, (e.g. “she hurt me”), turn it around to the other person (“I hurt her”) to own your own part in the situation. List at least three examples of how this turnaround could be as true or truer than the original thought.
3. To the Self: Turn the thought around to yourself (e.g. “she hurt me” becomes “I hurt myself”) to see if you’ve been neglecting your own needs or not treating yourself as you would like others to treat you. List at least three examples of how this turnaround could be as true or truer than the original thought.
In Loving What Is, Byron Katie (2003) lucidly explains the Work step-by-step and presents multiple examples of actual dialogues in which she practiced her powerful method of inquiry with various men and women. In the book, she explains that when we do the Work, we find that we don’t have to consciously drop our painful thoughts; instead, they drop us. In other words, when we inquire into our thoughts and look for the truth for ourselves, we don’t even have to worry about figuring out how to “let go” of them; instead, we only need to gently question them to find that somehow, effortlessly and naturally, they let go of us.
The video below offers a wonderful example of the Work in action:
Conclusion: Four Keys to Freedom
With these four tools, we have four practical keys to unlock the doors of freedom from painful thoughts and suffering. These four techniques are easy to learn, easy to practice, and produce concrete benefits that greatly exceed the small amounts of energy they require. The peace, relief, relaxation, and attunement to reality as it is–as opposed to our often inaccurate confabulations about the world, ourselves, and each other–that these simple tools afford cannot be overstated. In my experience, they have worked wonders. I hope that you will consider accepting the invitation to try them out and see what they can do for you as well.
As a closing image, we can think of a painful thought like a rock that has been thrown through the air. I see the rock flying by. What can I do? Perhaps the least helpful thing I can do is to jump into its path, let it smack into me, hold on to it, and take it everywhere with me as a memory of the injury it inflicted. I can unconsciously come to identify with the story of how the rock injured me, become “the wounded man who was victimized by the rock,” and live out that story as if it were true. I can carry that tale with me and suffer over it every day as I repeatedly relive the injury the rock inflicted on me long ago. This maladaptive approach is like blindly believing a painful thought without questioning it.
Or, if I’ve been traumatized by past experiences of getting hit by rocks before, I can exercise my body and allow it to naturally shake out the tension associated with those painful memories. This is the way of trauma-release exercises (TRE).
Or, I can simply watch the rock fly by and see that it neither adds nor takes away anything from me. I can notice what’s going on in my body, what feelings and thoughts are arising about the rock, and tune into the peaceful clarity in the space between the thoughts. This is the way of mindful witnessing.
Finally, if I accidentally get hit by the rock, I can scan my body to sense what’s going on within it. This is the technique of body sensing or Eugene Gendlin’s focusing. Or, I can gently question the story I’ve made up about the rock, turn my thoughts about it around, and inquire into the truth for myself. I can hold my thoughts up against the evidence and the facts of reality and see if it stands up to meditative inquiry. This is the way of the Work.
In closing, no matter how painful a thought in your mind may be, you’re never a slave to it. Freedom is always an option. Returning from the lie a troubling story tells you to the truth that reality discloses when our minds are in harmony with what is, always remains a possibility. Reality feels very peaceful when we’re in harmony with it and like a torturing hell when our thoughts are at war with what is. If you find yourself in hell, I invite you to try these four practical keys to freedom and experience the new life that awaits you beyond your mind’s confabulations, which hurt when you believe them.
Here’s the truth, in my experience: you’re never hopeless, helpless, or powerless. Never ever. You’re more powerful and capable of far greater joy and peace than your thoughts will ever know or lead you to believe. If you want to taste your own freedom directly and find out the truth for yourself, you can sense into your body and move as you feel your body wants to move or do the simple TRE exercises and let your body shake out its own tension. You can be a mindful witness of your own life and intensely and passionately tun in to the the reality of your present experience. And you can question any thought that clashes with what is and watch the light of truth illuminate your inner world and reveal a universe more beautiful than our dark confabulations could ever have foreseen.
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