Whenever my friend Aaron finds himself lost in habitual and unproductive thoughts, he describes himself as “swimming in the river of blah blah.” Buddhists call this river papanca, or “mental proliferation”, and see it as one of the chief causes of human suffering. Cognitive therapists refer to it as “automatic thinking.” Whatever we call it, it’s a powerful force. We’re all subject to automatic, fleeting thoughts which arise so quickly and are so habitual that they tend to fly below the radar of conscious awareness. A series of automatic thoughts forms an internal monologue. We all engage in these monologues: we’re constantly interpreting, evaluating, and judging both our own and other people’s actions, and since most of the time we’re more or less unconscious that we’re doing it, we continually conflate what is happening with our evaluation of it.
Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, describes one kind of suffering that results from swimming in the river of blah blah. “You have probably come across ‘mad’ people in the street incessantly talking or muttering to themselves. Well, that’s not much different from what you and all other ‘normal’ people do, except that you don’t do it out loud.” Most so-called “normal” people are plagued with an inner voice that “comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, likes, dislikes, and so on….It is not uncommon for the voice to be a person’s own worst enemy. Many people live with a tormentor in their head that continuously attacks and punishes them and drains them of vital energy. It is the cause of untold misery and unhappiness, as well as of disease.” These self-attacks are implicated in, or directly responsible for, a myriad of problems – anxiety and depression, dissatisfaction and despair, addictions and compulsions, discord in relationships, and on and on.
Cognitive research has convincingly established that automatic thoughts are important casual factors in a many emotional issues. For instance, people who suffer from depression tend toward automatic thoughts which tell them that they’re helpless to alter their circumstances. People with anxiety issues often engage in thoughts which exaggerate future threats (this is called “catastrophizing” or my favorite, “disasterbation.”)
Fortunately, the techniques for changing automatic thinking patterns are so simple that some people can learn them from self-help manuals. A simple way to do this is to pick up a copy of David Burns’ book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and do the written exercises for changing cognitive distortions. As far as I know, this is the only self-help manual whose effectiveness has actually been scientifically tested. In five separate studies in which depressed patients were given no other treatment than a copy of Feeling Good, and the suggestion that they read it, it was found that Feeling Good “bibliotherapy” could be as effective as a full course of psychotherapy or treatment with antidepressant drugs.
The process is simple, but it’s not so easy to do, because the human brain evolved to believe itself. When we’ve thought the same thoughts for a long time, they begin to feel like mere common sense realities which are seem so obviously true that they need no proof. So the work involves a constant and vigilant attempt to relate to our thoughts rather than from them. One helpful exercise is to spend some time making an inventory of your “top ten tunes” – the automatic thoughts which cause you the most difficulty (e.g. “It’s foolish to trust other people,” “I’m lazy,” etc.) People who do this exercise often find that it enables them, sometimes for the first time in their lives, to look critically at their own minds. They begin to see how sweeping its judgments are; how often they’re based on childhood misperceptions rather than mature thinking; and how unforgiving and lacking in compassion their minds can be. The entire process is governed by one simple principle: “Don’t believe everything you think.”