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  Check out "Bad Habits of Mind"



Sherlock Holmes cartoon
from Dining with Sherlock Holmes by Rosenblatt and Sonnenschmidt

Because eating is such a pleasure, it is easy to use it to cover up bad feelings. Feeling depressed, we head for the refrigerator. This is solving nothing. In fact, it is adding to our troubles by increasing our weight.

We should eat because we are hungry, but in our society eating because we are hungry is rare. Taste rules. We drink Coke after Coke or eat one candy bar after another. We fill up on rich desserts, even though we have already had plenty to eat.

There are ways to deal with bad feelings other than covering them up.

Entertain the possibility of change

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

When a person is receptive to change, he or she is a learner. You can look to yourself to discover who you are and to discover life itself, lifting your sight above the negative thoughts, which for now you can determine to live with.

Implicit in this learning attitude are the words, "I know there is more to learn. I persist. I keep looking to the expressions of human nature in myself, regardless of their unfriendliness. I marvel at the processes of Nature occurring in myself. I marvel at my complexity. I cannot know all of it, but I can know more of it. Even my most negative thoughts are expressions of the processes of Nature.

"I know that within me there are reserves of self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and self-mercy. I do not reject myself. I look beyond my negative thoughts to what may be hidden but is never lost: love, kindness, generosity, fairness, and minute-by-minute creativity. Even though I choke up when I speak, I find myself interesting. Though I am ignorant, I believe in myself. Though I am stupid, I respect myself. Though I am wrong, I want myself. Though I pretend to be what I am not, I recognize my creative nature. I am a history, ideas, values, feelings, and intentions."

Objectify what is happening

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

Basic to taking leadership of oneself is turning toward instead of away, so that, instead of cowering before the authoritarian righteousness of shaming and blaming, you raise your head and look. You see that a part of your mind is nagging your with mean thoughts - I am unattractive, I am unpopular, I was wrong, I made a mistake, I failed, I am poor, I am low-class, I am uneducated, I am unintelligent, I am ignorant - in short, I am inferior.

John Bowlby, in his book Charles Darwin, a New Life, notes that patients, such as Charles Darwin, who tend to hyperventilate "have a pronounced tendency to avoid referring to the event or to their having been distressed by it. Furthermore, they do not need to be consciously aware of having been reminded of the event for it to affect their breathing. This means that . . . the disturbing event or continuing situation responsible for the condition is likely to remain hidden. Findings of these sorts go far to explain occasions when the onset of symptoms occurs for no obvious reason, as often happens - for example while reading a newspaper or watching TV." This is to say that we sometimes separate ourselves from our bad feelings by turning away from them. This is the opposite of self-knowledge.

Some words, for example, are so closely associated with fear, shame, hostility, and guiltiness that they evoke an avoidance reaction in themselves. A person who has been called a sissy or a faggot, for example, can feel so ashamed of this name that he or she has a tendency to look askance at it, if at all. Similarly, vulgar language causes some people to stop up their ears, and their dread of using vulgar language themselves is so great that they would "die of embarrassment" if they should utter it.

To be a whole person again, you can move away from ignoring or repudiating your bad feelings and move into a position of being receptive to change. From this position you are compassionate - you recognize that you are more than your bad feelings. Implicit in this attitude lie the words, "I am with myself. I do not turn away from myself. I acknowledge myself. I recognize my bad feelings. My compassion recognizes that I am more than I think I am. Who I am and who I have been have been produced by the processes of Nature. I do not repudiate or desert any of myself. I do not turn my back on myself. I do not try to will myself out of existence. I acknowledge my existence, each part of my body and each part of my mind. A person is going to feel the full range of human feelings, including fear, shame, hostility, and guiltiness. A person cannot be human without experiencing them. Therefore, I face my negative thoughts. We live together."

Your talk to yourself is like a holy person's addressing a leper: "I see your sores and crippling, but I am not repelled. I do not flee from you. Rather, I attend to you, knowing that the nobility of humanity is in you, just as it is in every other man and woman."

You can objectify the bad feelings. You can stand apart. Facing your interior life, you can say in your mind, "You are suffering a wave of bad feeling. I face what is happening. My bad feelings are in me, a part of me. I acknowledge them." In this way you take the part neither of the shamer and blamer nor of the one feeling shame and blame but rather a third part, a person receptive to change. You place yourself in a position of seeing that you are hurting and being hurt.

You can recognize your mental situation - "Nature has pushed something at me" - and give it a name: "You are fearful of being suffocated, you are fearful of being suffocated, . . ." If you can't identify what is the cause of the attack, make a stab in the dark:

-fear of being suffocated/smothered/cut/pounced on/overpowered/bound/struck

-anger at being insulted/tricked/wrongly accused.


Alternatively, you can simply say repeatedly to yourself, "What is this anxiety? What is this anxiety? What is this anxiety?" putting yourself, in this way, in the place of the observer.

There is value, too, in ranking your awful feelings, with the most awful listed at the top and the least awful at the bottom of the list. By doing so, you become a scientist of your condition. Here is an example.

#1. Suffocated with ether, resulting in feeling vulnerable

#2. Made unconscious (accompanied by nightmares), resulting in feeling vulnerable

#3. Mutilated in an assault, resulting in feeling vulnerable

#4. Disliked by parent(s)/sibling(s), resulting in self-doubt

#5. Humiliation of punishment

#6. Disgust (experiences related to excretion, smell)

#7. Disliked by boss(es), resulting in self-doubt

#8. Embarrassment by being gay

#9. Embarrassed (many instances)

#10. Insulted/rejected (many instances)

Bowlby observes that "it can happen that a person who has suffered a serious loss or some severe setback in his working life, and has subsequently become depressed, is unable to recognize that his state of depression is a response to the loss or the setback. Once the connection between response and situation is grasped, the depression becomes intelligible. . . (The same is true of the physiological expressions of anxiety or of anger, such as a thumping heart or sweating hands. Once the person concerned understands what they are and how they arose, he ceases to regard them as symptoms and sees them instead as the ordinary human responses to danger or frustration.)" (John Bowlby, Charles Darwin, a New Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), 79.)

A list of bad feelings can suggest that these bad feelings are not so horrible that they must be denied. Rather, they can be observed, as a scientist would observe them. You are then a realist. All of us are chock full of emotions, all of them allowable. They are in Nature.

fear of being violated/cut/mutilated/controlled/squeezed/forced/suffocated/intruded upon/tortured

shame of having been violated/cut/mutilated/controlled/squeezed/forced/ suffocated/intruded upon/tortured

fear of being humiliated/scorned/shown contempt/embarrassed/ridiculed/loser/failure/disliked/disgraced

shame of having been humiliated/scorned/shown contempt/embarrassed/ridiculed/loser/failure/disliked/disgraced

fear of being in the wrong

fear of unconsciousness


anger/frustration/hurt feelings/shame at having been insulted/betrayed/tricked/cheated/attacked/stolen from


feeling alienated/lonely/isolated/excluded/pushed out/unwanted

feeling vulnerable/self-doubting/weak/exposed

feeling obsessed/distracted by sexual attraction

feeling envious

feeling disgust (rotten, putrid smells, images, etc.)

Naming what one feels is not always possible. When a person is outside any protective social group, he or she is in a dangerous position. It is the same position that an outcast from a tribe is in - the person is vulnerable to wild animals, unfriendly tribes, and the elements. In such a position, not only are you afraid, but you have been rejected and thus feel ashamed, since the very nature of shame is the experience of being excluded. In such a vulnerable position you are assaulted by a multitude of fears. Almost any danger assumes exaggerated proportions. In this case, it is difficult to name each fear and each feeling of shame, since there are so many. However, you can at least recognize your vulnerability and acknowledge that you are experiencing the tortures of a powerless outsider. In such a case of confusion, you can say: "You are attacking yourself. You are obsessing. You are feeling vulnerable and not capable." or "You are trying to hold your image together. You are feeling self-conscious."

Speaking to oneself in this way is recognition that there are other resources in one's mind. The mind entertains the possibility that there is more to a person than his or her panic and despair.

A person who suffers from general depression should not hesitate to say to himself or herself, "You are depressed. You are depressed. . . ." (at least ten times). In this case, the person doing the talking is not identical with the person who is depressed. The self-talk sets up a subjective-objective situation - you separate "I" (the talker) from the depression (object). Thus, you can be conscious of what your mind is doing - you can be conscious of consciousness.

Similarly, saying "What can I do?" repeatedly enlists the services of the person's inner nature. Consciously, you might not know what to do, but it is possible that deeper in one's nature there are answers.

You can face your painful memories. You can face your nightmares. You can rise above the person you think you are. You can face the part of your body that has been assaulted. You can face the bad relationship you have with it. You can acknowledge your shame of its victimization, pain, and weakness. If you feel bad about it, you can say, "You are feeling pain, you are feeling pain, . . ."

Object to your awful thoughts

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

One would think that a person wouldn't have to work so hard at righting one's own wrong against himself or herself. One would think that the self-defender would come charging forth at every threat to self-respect. However, this is not the case. In the words of Erasmus, "Man's mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth." In people who feel vulnerable, harsh judgments against oneself seem to be strong and kindly judgments weak. The reason for this is that kindliness is not naturally triumphant. It has to be achieved. The mind entertains harsh judgments just as readily as kindly ones. To people that feel vulnerable, harsh judgments seem to be superior to kindly ones. Cowering before the seeming superiority of the judge, you feel that you have no right to self-compassion, self-mercy, and self-forgiveness. A necessary condition, therefore, for overcoming negative thoughts is entertaining the possibility that you do, after all, deserve good treatment from yourself. A person can say, "Every human being deserves to live in the present creatively without the obstruction of shame and guiltiness. I take a position in opposition to the shame and guiltiness that stand in the way of my enjoyment of the present. I persist in asserting my values of self-compassion, self-mercy, and self-forgiveness. The event is past, and all that remains of it is a reflection in the mind. It is an illusion that the event is real, still occurring."

The power of shaming and blaming is too strong for just a single mention. Instead of naming one's feeling just once, you need to hold onto your position by repeatedly saying what you are feeling, until the power of bad feelings diminishes. For example, if you are feeling guilty, you can say, "You are feeling guilty, you are feeling guilty, . . ." repeatedly until your bad feeling dissipates. It is remarkable that this technique is so effective. By your being open to change, the power of the judge is weakened.

Recently, instead of carefully reading the directions for installing software in a computer, I was too hasty and used up a lot of extra time needlessly. On the way home, I realized that I was kicking myself for being too hasty. I said to myself, "You are kicking yourself for being too hasty. You are kicking yourself for being too hasty. You are kicking yourself for being too hasty . . ." repeatedly. Before long, the bad feeling dissipated, and my mind dwelt upon other matters.

The judge does not relinquish its power unless you persist. Repeatedly it calls you names, criticizes, and compares you unfavorably with other people. As you make an effort to take an opposing position, you find yourself on a slippery surface, where it is all too easy to slide back into self-name-calling, self-criticism, and uncomplimentary comparisons with other people. It is easy for your opposing thoughts to fade away. Since the negative thoughts are persistent, you, too, must be persistent. The mind moves swiftly. Thoughts change in an instant. Similarly, thoughts of fear, shame, hostility, or guiltiness pass through the mind almost instantaneously. If you do not take the presence of a bad feeling as an opportunity to object, the bad feeling can linger and spoil the occasion. Consequently, in the presence of a bad feeling, taking a position must be asserted almost moment by moment if self-doubt is not to take over. The statement "You are obsessing" or "You are attacking yourself" must be asserted with persistence by saying it repeatedly and then saying, "Please go back" or "Please go back, all of you. I'd like to settle all of those cases" (global rejection of all harassing thoughts) or "That does not avail" (that is, it is counter-productive). In time, this position gains strength, and negative thoughts recede.

In repeating a command, keep track on your fingers:

(1st time that a statement is uttered in the mind) - think of left hand little finger

(2nd time) - think of left hand ring finger

(3rd time) - think of left hand middle finger

(4th) - think of left hand index finger

(5th) - think of left hand thumb

(6th) - think of right hand little finger

(7th) - think of right hand ring finger

(8th) - think of right hand middle finger

(9th) - think of right hand index finger

(10th - think of right hand thumb

The command is not shouted or forced. Rather, it is just said. You establish a platform in your mind that is distinct from the negative thought.

You can coordinate the statements with breathing - 1st utterance of the statement, 1st breath, 2nd utterance of the statement, 2nd breath, and so on.

When negative thoughts have full sway over the person, they freeze the mind so that the person feels no freedom to move into another position. Guiltiness feels lumpy and heavy, with tendrils that clutch, so that the person can hardly breathe. Sometimes I have awakened in the middle of the night in the clutch of guiltiness. My eyes pop open, and I feel the terrible blackness of guiltiness. My mind seems to be locked on some terrible memory. In such instances, I have said to myself in my mind, "You are being attacked. You are being attacked. You are being attacked . . . ." and, then, "Please go back" or "Please go back, all of you. I'd like to settle all of those cases" (global rejection of all harassing thoughts) or "That does not avail" (that is, it is counter-productive).

Then I have seen that the judge in me, the merciless Puritan, so rigid, relentless, and unforgiving, was convicting me. By using self-talk, I took a stance in a part of my mind apart from the victim of self-blame. I stopped being a victim and took a different part. I saw that my actually being guilty is permanent, but my feeling guilty - blamed and unforgiven - doesn't have to be permanent.

Like guiltiness, the feeling of shame can also seem to be overwhelming. If in one's life there has been a terrible abasement, the mind produces images of being stepped on and dirty. Sexual abasement, in particular, causes a person to feel dirty. Because of the physical violation, the person comes to see himself or herself as a dirty person. The dirtiness becomes a part of the person's view of himself or herself.

This, too, can be resisted: "You are feeling vulnerable because your boundary was crossed, you are feeling vulnerable because your boundary was crossed, you are feeling vulnerable because your boundary was crossed, . . ." and, then, "Please, go back" or "Please, go back, all of you" (global rejection of all harassing thoughts).

Working inside one's mind is fascinating work, since it is a way of learning more about oneself and about life. Although it is difficult and sometimes unsettling, it is never dull, and, enlarging as it does one's understanding of self and of life, it has value beyond the overcoming of unhappiness.

Practice simplifying consciousness

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

You can learn to simplify consciousness. One approach to simplifying consciousness is to think about something in present time such as breathing or walking instead of heading for the refrigerator.

Simplifying consciousness comes about through practice. You can practice paying attention to what you are doing to the exclusion of unwanted thoughts and feelings. Paying attention is being awake now. You are right in the middle of what you are doing and you pay attention only to what you are doing. The more significant one's present is, the less significant one's past becomes. It's not that you don't know everything that you know - that is a given. It's just that you take existence as it comes, here and now, in the present. You give your full attention.

If you awaken in the middle of the night with an attack of anxiety, try panting/gasping, clenching the edges of the front teeth together and exhaling through your teeth. This is a form of breathing meditation, effective when you are attacked.

Two useful kinds of practice are breathing meditation and walking meditation. Much more information about both of these kinds of meditation is available on the Internet - search for "breathing meditation" and "walking meditation." Gunaratana has excellent explanations:

Gunaratana on breathing meditation
Gunaratana on walking meditation
Just as good are the audio talks by Gil Fronsdal and others:
Audio talks by Gil Fronsdal and others
Other worthwhile audio talks can be found at the site of the Seattle Insight Meditation Center:
Seattle Insight Meditation Society
Assert One or More Values

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

Invoke one or more of the great values of self-love, self-kindness, self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and self-mercy. To invoke them, one can either say them quickly, repeatedly, or else coordinate the words with breathing: (breathe in) self-love, (breathe out) self-kindness, (breathe in) self-compassion, (breathe out) self-forgiveness, (breathe in) self-mercy. One can also say, "I want to simplify my consciousness (free it of intrusive thoughts and feelings). I want to be patient (not in a hurry, feeling only what is current)" or "Leaving the facts behind" (not "out of it,"not lost in thought). Sometimes, just the recognition that one is alive is enough to improve one's mood: "I am alive. I do what is called for by present circumstances. I let my nature provide insights." You can also say, "I am a living organism, functioning in the present. I am my own master. I see, I hear, I smell, I taste, I feel" or "I am awake . . . here . . . now . . . I float in the current of the present." Try this formula: "You are repeating yourself, you are repeating yourself, you are repeating yourself . . . Please, go back. I want to simplify my consciousness. I am a living organism functioning in the present. I am my own master. I see, I hear, I smell, I taste, I feel. The more significant one's present is, the less significant one's past becomes."

Relax the Body (when trying to fall asleep)

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

Start with the toes. Touch (or pull on) each little toe in turn, then each fourth toe, and so on. Touch each pair of fingers - each little finger in turn, each fourth finger, and so on. Touch on each side of the center line of your skull, starting with the back of your neck and proceeding to your crown and down to your eyes. Touch each closed eye and each nostril and both sides of your lips. In time, these steps can be taken just in the mind.

Next come the bones. Imagine that you are touching various bones with a hammer - cheek bones one side and then the other, forehead, nose, shoulders, hip bones, elbows, knees, ankle bones, and soles of the feet. Feel the cold metal of the hammer in your imagination.

Next, imagine that you are holding your heart. Imagine that you are touching your alimentary canal from top to bottom. Imagine that your head is resting in the palms of your hands and that you are gently lifting it up and down.

Look for a Friendly Image or Color (when trying to fall asleep)

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

Look for a friendly image or color. In a looking state of mind, thoughts and images bubble up into consciousness from some mysterious realm inside the mind (as they do, actually, in all states of mind). They come to mind as a meaningful whole, not just syllable by syllable or picture by picture.

When you want to fall asleep, you can recognize the pathway coming from the deep realm of your existence up to consciousness. Recognizing this pathway is similar to saying to yourself, "I am in Nature, not apart from it. I am the creature of what is going on inside my mind."

Imagine that there is a blank screen a few inches in front of your closed eyes. Wait for a friendly image or color (maybe deep iridescent blue or ice green) to appear on the screen, saying to yourself, "I look for dream images or a color. I sleep. I dream," over and over again.

Odd images and thoughts often appear. If they are unfriendly, move away from them and return to looking at the blank screen. Continue to look. Since you are trying to go to sleep, when images or a color appear on the screen, they will turn into dreams.

Dealing with Insomnia

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

Be suspicious of coffee. Coffee is insidious - you feel fine for several hours, and then you feel awful, and, because of the passage of time, it is difficult to pinpoint the source of the bad mood. Another culprit: alcohol - you fall asleep and then awaken in the middle of the night. Another thought: if you are bothered by muscle cramping or twitching in your legs or feet during the night, make a conscious effort not to cross your legs during the day. Crossing your legs squeezes the muscles, causing cramping and twitching later. If you awaken, drink a teaspoonful of cod liver oil, which helps calm the leg muscles. Just as good as cod liver oil is flax seed oil capsules, which have the advantage of containing less vitamin A.

When a person suddenly wakes up, his or her mind is saying, "You are in danger. You'd better wake up to defend yourself." When you are awake, you are less vulnerable than when you are asleep.

Insomnia is caused either by memories of events that haven't been fully consigned to the past or else by aloneness.

In the first instance (memories of events that haven't been fully consigned to the past), something awful has happened, and the mind wants somehow to undo it. It keeps you awake while you go over the unfortunate episode again and again. However, the episode, now in the past, is irreversible. Whether you were in the right or in the wrong, it is a fact. Only the feelings connected with it are reversible.

Not only are the awful feelings alive, but, in addition, there is confusion - there is a tumbling or churning or flashing in the mind. There seems to be no place to land. Insomniacs have lost faith in the safety of existence. The terror, horror, and disgust that underlie everyday existence are immediately under their noses.

In the second instance (aloneness), the person is outside the pale, where wild animals roam and unfriendly tribes lurk, and there is no tribe of your own to offer comfort. The anxiety is the anxiety of the outsider.

Bad Dreams

Sherlock Holmes cartoon

Caffeine does more than just keep us awake - it stirs up the mind, producing tumbling, churning, or flashing. Alcohol, too, causes bad dreams. For some of us, there is no peace with caffeine and alcohol.

Once a bad dream has beset you, there is nothing that you can do about it. It has occurred, and you can't undo it. However, the bad feelings that it stirred up linger.

Our tendency is to go over and over the bad dream, as if replaying it could undo it. Also, we try to understand the "why" of this particular attack. This replaying and the search for understanding are the same as worrying - our thinking is circular, going around and around over the same material.

The most that you can do is to make the bad feelings short-lived. You make them short-lived by (1) acknowledging them. Acknowledge that the bad dream has occurred. See it as an expression of Nature, of which you are the channel. See it as having occurred and not currently occurring. By so doing you leave the bad dream in the irretrievable past. (2) Turn away from the bad feelings and turn your mind to other matters.

Randomness of thoughts such as occur in dreams seems to be a characteristic of being human. All kinds of odd, unexpected thoughts and feelings occur all the time during both waking and sleeping life. We ask ourselves, "Where did THAT come from?"

It is quite possible that randomness is part and parcel of the natural creativity of human beings. We couldn't be creative without the randomness. Nature releases random thoughts and feelings into consciousness whether they are useful or not and whether they are likeable or not. Some will be useful and/or likeable and some will not. It seems that we wouldn't have the useful and likeable ones if we didn't also have the other, unwanted ones. Knowing this, you can see dreams as expressions of the natural creativity of being human.

Given the randomness of our thinking, you have no choice but to use your own judgment in separating the ones that you want to act on from the ones that you want to drop.

Check out "Bad Habits of Mind"

Check out "Commonplace, Ordinary, Everyday Life - Choosing Good Nature"


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