Choosing Thoughts

William James: The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another
William James (from Big Think)

Over at Big Think yesterday they had a quote from William James:

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

If only it were that easy! If only our ability to choose were so straightforward! Since I have had ME I find that anxious and stressful thoughts — usually about one symptom or another — pounce on me suddenly like they were cat and me mouse. They leave me shaking and sweating and feeling sick. There isn’t a space between the thought and the physical response in which to choose not to respond. In fact, when I reflect on it, it seems that the first thing I know is the physiological change with the thought about whatever it is following in its wake. And once the adrenaline is pumping and I am thinking anxious thoughts the power to choose to be calm seems to have left me.

I have tried lots of therapies to change this pattern: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aims to change illness beliefs but it didn’t help me in this area; various NLP-based pattern-interrupts are supposed to help but haven’t in my case; Eriksonian hypnotherapy helps to some degree, letting my unconscious mind ‘choose’ less stressing thoughts, but it isn’t a fast-acting solution for me. Mindfulness is supposed to help but when I am in the grip of the adrenaline response I find it hard to inhabit the observing space and let things be. I have had a modicum of relief in simply ‘externalizing’ the thought — telling someone that X is happening and I am worrying over it and what to do about it — if i can find someone who will listen and not make a fuss or make me feel stupid.

I guess all that shouldn’t surprise me — human beings are complex, weak creatures and sick ones even more so. Ignatian spirituality has been called a ‘mysticism of choice’ and Ignatius knew all about the complexity of choosing one’s thoughts. For him the issue was to do with discernment of spirits. Here is Ignatius’ ‘subtitle’ to his so-called Rules for discernment:

… to aid us toward perceiving and understanding, at least to some extent, the various motions which are caused in the soul: the good motions that they may be received, and the bad that they may be rejected (Exx 313).

‘Motions’ covers thoughts, feelings, desires, leanings, fantasies, etc. and Ignatius provides rules of thumb for sorting them out, ‘good’ from ‘bad’, so that the first can be ‘received’ and the second ‘rejected’. Quite similar in a way to William James sentiment but the context is more nuanced. Ignatius’ rules are embedded in the experience Spiritual Exercises, a month-long imaginative pedagogy of choice and desire. Receiving and rejecting takes some training!

One insight from Ignatius I find helpful is that following the ‘good spirit’ is more helpful than resisting the ‘bad’. All the focus on pattern breaking is — at least in my case — giving extra air time to the ‘bad spirit’. Far more helpful is to engage the ‘good spirit’. I recently discovered a psychological approach that has something in common with this aspect of Ignatius teaching.

Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical Science of Reshaping Your Brain – and Your Life by Rick Hanson attends more to the ‘receiving’ pole than the ‘rejecting’ pole. I will let him explain the practice himself:

What Ignatius describes as ‘storing up consolation’ Hanson presents as three steps HAVE, ENRICH, ABSORB:

1. HAVE – Notice any quality of being for yourself already present in the foreground or background of awareness. Perhaps you can sense or feel a determination to take care of your own needs, or good wishes for yourself. Or, create this feeling. Bring to mind a time when you were strong on your own behalf, when you self-advocated or were kind to yourself. If it’s hard to get on your own side, start by remembering the experience of being for someone else. Feel what this is like, and then see if you can bring the same attitude to yourself. Perhaps get an image or memory of yourself as a young, vulnerable child and see if you can feel supportive toward that young person.

2. ENRICH – Open to this feeling. Let it fill your body and mind and become more intense. Stay with it, help it last, make a sanctuary for it in your mind. Notice different aspects of the experience. Imagine how you would sit or stand or speak of you were on your own side, and then let your posture or facial expression shift in this direction. Be aware of how being on your own side would matter for you at home or work.

3. ABSORB – Sense and intend that this feeling of being on your own side is sinking into you as you sink into it. Let this good experience become a part of you. Give yourself over to it. Let being kind toward yourself, wishing yourself well, be increasingly how you treat yourself.

It sounds very simple — and it is. Make the most of ‘good’ experiences when they happen, amplify them and dwell with them long enough for them to affect the brain’s chemistry, store them up. And even when such an experience is not present you can evoke a memory or even imagine one and store that up too.

I find that even when ‘nothing’ else good is going on I can enjoy the simple experience of holding a hot water bottle: the warmth is comforting and when I focus on it it expands and I notice the way it relaxes muscle and soothes pain and takes up the focus of my attention in a lovely way. If I dwell further I can feel it connect with other richer experiences too.

And more, even when the adrenaline has pounced on me and I am feeling scared and wrung out, shaken and shivery, when I get a moment’s freedom I can recall the hot water bottle — or better fill a real one — and, instead of fighting the adrenaline or trying hard to choose not to think disturbing thoughts, I can accept and receive something good and healing. And maybe take a step to rewiring my brain.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *