Gaining control of negative thoughts

For years, I’ve been very curious about what it takes to be happy in our lives.

  • Jun. 30, 2011 6:00 p.m.

For years, I’ve been very curious about what it takes to be happy in our lives.

This was a personal exploration I took on when I was 13, when my parents separated and my mother explained, “Paul, you see, your dad and I just weren’t happy together anymore.”

Not happy anymore ! What do you mean? How could that be?

Thus arose a passion and research in my life. This is a report on some of my findings and principles I discovered.

The first exciting breakthrough: “Events themselves don’t make me feel …”

I saw that, to use the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “People are disturbed not by what happens to them, but by their thoughts about what happens to them.”

This was a principle so clear and simple in its obviousness that most people totally ignore it or pass it by. Certainly we don’t live that way. We live like “the events makes us feel.”

Yet it was true. Whenever I experienced a stressful feeling — anything from mild discomfort to sorrow, anger, anxiety, fear — I could see there was a clear and specific thought causing my feeling reaction.

Waiting in the line up at the bank did not make me angry. It was the things I believed about the events, what I was saying to myself, that caused my experience. This was a breakthrough. At this point I became curious and began to look within.

What was the nature of these  thoughts, reactions and stories? What were their concerns, desires and opinions? What were they driving at?

Clearly as I openly watched my chatter and stories, I saw an enormous amount of fussing and self-interest. These thoughts were, of course, all about “me” — my opinions, fears, hopes and strategies. And always a judging of “reality” of things that were happening in “my” world. Always a sense of  “I know,” “I want,” “I don’t want.” I saw a sense of continually trying to prove something — striving and dissatisfaction.

Secondly, as I watched, I could see that if I thought something to myself, I believed it. I rarely re-examined or questioned the truth of my thoughts.

This startled me. My thoughts and stories gave me my experience, my world and the quality of my life. Yet they remained un-investigated.

Then I noticed a lot of what I was saying to myself, while on first cut I believed to be true and real, wasn’t true or real at all.

At this point I saw something else. I saw there was a vast difference between the reality of this moment right here, right now, — and the thoughts or stories I was telling myself. I saw that what we may call “reality” is not found in my thoughts.

Reality is a very pointed here-and-now thing. My stories were ideas and memories after the fact. They were not real life. This too was a welcome surprise.

I began to desire reality, to let go, to drop, into the experience of this moment here and now, as a practice.

Questioning thought

At this point in my exploration, I met the author Byron Katie through her best selling book Loving What Is. Katie designed an exciting and powerful way to examine and inquire into our thoughts and their impact on our experience of life.

Katie proposes all our stress and suffering is caused whenever we  “quarrel with reality.” It is our quarrel with “what is,” the wanting things to “be some other way” that was the source of our unhappiness.

For Katie, the way to end suffering is to investigate and question our thoughts behind it. She invented a set of four simple yet profound questions to do this. Questions, which when asked and engaged in authentically, produce release and whole new perspectives. Katie promises that anyone can do this.

My work continued. Using the tools of inquiry, I saw that when I began to watch and question my stressful thoughts, there was an authentic sense of release.

By watching openly, quietly, without believing so many of my thoughts, long held stories of quarrel judgment and resistance to life disappeared. Life became lighter and simpler. I was left, simply, present.

As I learned to become still, I saw I was already was free and satisfied. The natural state in my life was free and peaceful. I simply had to surrender.

My search into happiness was bearing fruit. I was getting my hands on the magic wand. I was discovering what it takes to look after my own satisfaction and well-being.Today it has become my passion to share this work and this exploration with others.

—Paul Beckow is an individual, marriage and family therapist on the West Shore. See



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