Here’s a fun game you can play with a friend: it’s called, “Don’t Think About Polar Bears.” The first person to think about a polar bear loses. Generally, the game doesn’t last more than a few seconds. Trying to not think about polar bears, causes you to think about polar bears. Actually the game isn’t much fun at all, but it does bring up a good point: how do you control your thoughts?
Thought control isn’t needed just for Sufi mystics and hypnotists, it’s practical for everyday life. The ability to focus on a task, guide your emotions or find creative solutions all require some degree of mental discipline. A critical ability is being able to stop thinking about something.
I’m can’t bend spoons with my mind, but I have found some useful techniques to clean my mental palette. Here are a few of the benefits I’ve found in practicing these methods:
- Remove stress from bad experiences. I’m sure we have all had bad experiences replayed in the back of our mind over and over again. A few of the methods I’ve researched have helped me hit the stop button when these start to repeat.
- Focus on a new task. Sometimes I’ll write several articles on completely different subjects back-to-back. Doing this means I need some way of clearing out my thoughts on the past topic to start focusing on the new idea.
- Relaxation. The methods I’ve found are also useful for slowing down your thinking, making it easier to sleep at night or relax after a hard day.
In researching ways to clean my mental palette and avoid the polar bear paradox, I’ve lumped most of the methods into two categories:
- Short-term solutions - Quick techniques to switch your stream of thought.
- Long-term solutions - Ways to keep nagging thoughts from recurring.
Cleaning Your Palette – Quick Fixes
Short-term solutions work well when the stream of thought you want to dump isn’t emotionally charged. If you have an unresolved problem that has been gnawing at you, a snap of the fingers won’t permanently switch your focus. But these quick fixes can work well to change your focus onto something else:
- Use a Trigger. Triggers can act like a light switch to stop one pattern of thoughts and move to another. A trigger could be a physical action like snapping your fingers, or a phrase you say to yourself. After you use the trigger, you practice immediately doing another action to change your focus. W. Clement Stone used to have his employees recite, “Do it Now!” when feeling the urge to procrastinate. Sherwin Nuland explains in this speech how he used what was basically a trigger to help win his battle against extreme depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.
- Allow Thoughts to Flow. The problem with the polar bear game is that trying to force a thought out only strengthens it. Buddhism teaches a different method where you allow the thoughts to flow in, and then imagine them flowing away. By detaching from your thoughts and not forcing them to appear or disappear, you can clear your mind.
- Change the Environment. Move to a different room in your house, go for a walk or just sit in a different position. When you change your environment, you get new sensory input, so it is harder to maintain an old thought pattern.
- Change Your Posture. In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes a study where researchers discovered that moving different facial muscles caused different moods. Up until this point, it had mostly been assumed that facial expressions and emotions were one way. You felt happy and your face smiled. This study showed that your emotions, and as a result your thoughts, could also be impacted by your body.
- Creative Activities. More passive activities, like reading, can sometimes lack the force to switch your mind from one stream of thoughts to another. A creative activity, like writing or drawing, has more power to cause a shift. For example, try doing a few mind-mapping exercises before switching to a different textbook.
Cleaning Your Palette – Long-Term Fixes
Quick fixes won’t work for the big problems. You can’t just “empty” your mind of feelings of guilt, anger or fear if they are intense enough. Even if you did have perfect mental control, would you want it? Stubborn thought patterns might be a sign that your relationship is broken, your job sucks or your health needs some work.
These methods take more time than the first five, but can be useful in cleaning out the more stubborn trains of thought.
- Fix the Problem. Feeling guilty about losing your temper? Apologize to the person. Constantly worrying about your diet? Stop eating junk food. There reaches a limit when you can’t do anything more and you need to just accept what has happened. But if there is a real problem, spend time coming up with a real solution.
- Dissect Your Thoughts. Open up a word document and just write. Write twenty pages if you have to, but don’t stop writing until all of your thoughts are exhausted on the screen. Even if you can’t come up with a meaningful solution, I’ve found that often exhausting the idea can make it easier to avoid thinking about it.
- Use the Thoughts. If a negative thought stream keeps recurring, find a way to use it. Use guilt as a way to commit not to do something similar in the future. Use fear as a motivator to keep yourself prepared. Use jealousy as a driver for making yourself a better person. This strategy falls in line with the saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join them.”
- Focus on a Passion. Direct your energies into something more constructive. Focusing on activities you love and things you do well at. This strategy works best if you can’t do anything more to solve the current problem. Focusing on your hobbies as an escape from a crappy job or family isn’t a good idea long-term.