(How exactly can you let go of a thought?)
Four months ago Finn joined the family. As a rescue dog he is still learning how to behave with us and he’s making good progress. But there is one thing he is not very good at yet – dropping his ball.
Finn loves playing ball but once he has it in his mouth, he hangs on to it for dear life. He likes to hold it, gnaw it and scrunch it but he’s very reluctant to drop it.
He reminds me of what we all do with our thoughts sometimes. We can become so fascinated by what pops into our head that we hang on to it. We roll it around our minds, repeatedly ruminating on the thoughts.
This is fine when the thoughts make us feel good but it’s a real downer when the thoughts make us feel bad. When we get a bad feeling because of what we are thinking, the logical thing is to drop the thoughts – to let go.
But there seems to be something hard about this. How exactly do you let go of a thought? It seems to have a life of its own and keeps coming back.
This is where Finn can give us a clue. All it takes for him to actually drop his ball is to relax his jaw and gravity does the rest. But for this to happen he has to change his dog-thinking from ‘this ball is the most important thing’ to ‘there is something more important than this ball in my mouth’.
Dinner time is good example. When a bowl of food suddenly becomes available, the ball is soon forgotten!
Back in the human world, as soon as you become aware that your thinking is making you feel bad, you have a choice:
1. You can keep thinking those thoughts, believing they are important, and continue to feel bad
2. You can recognize that those thoughts are just thoughts and you don’t have to take them seriously
Now you might read this and think “Come on Trevor, if I get a letter from my bank telling me my account is overdrawn, I feel bad and it is important!”
I understand you but be clear about what is actually happening. The letter informs you of a fact which is important. But it is not the fact that makes you feel bad – it is your thinking about the fact. For instance, you might berate yourself for being so silly – for spending too much money. You might get angry at the bank or even at the unfairness of life. It’s easy to go into a mental spin.
But the most effective way to deal with the overdraft is when you are calm and resourceful, and this can only happen when you are not dominated by thoughts making you feel bad.
So, how can you let them go? Remember Finn dropping the ball. You don’t need to make a special effort; it just needs you to make a choice. You can choose to drop a thought by relaxing your attention on it.
When you choose to stop feeding a thought with attention, it will shrivel and fade into the background. Making this choice is the origin of the common experience of ‘something took my mind off it’. Automatically your attention goes onto new thoughts.
And if the unhelpful thoughts do recur, you know that they are just thoughts that you no longer need to take seriously.