Thought Bite: Just Hang Up

In a previous Thought Bite titled “Fear,” it was said that, when fear arises, the first step is to examine the fear and determine the true level of threat. The second step is to take action to minimize the threat. Often, simply taking action reduces the fear. But if that doesn’t do the trick, there are methods to do so which require re-directing the attention. This Thought Bite discusses what can be done to decrease the experience of fear, whether there is a true threat or not, besides taking action.

Many years ago, I told a friend that sometimes unpleasant thoughts come into my mind and create anxiety. She had simple but wise advice: When those thoughts come into your mind and trouble you, “hang up the phone.”

I didn’t know then what she meant, but I’ve learned over the intervening years.

Imagine you were home alone on a dark night and received an anonymous call in which some unknown person threatened you harm. In this situation, it would be reasonable to immediately feel afraid. But then what would you do? Would you keep listening to this person or would you hang up the phone? Many, perhaps most, people would hang up the phone and then make an assessment as to how seriously to take the threat and what to do about it. If it were felt there might be a real threat, one might take action to secure their home—lock the doors and windows, turn on lights, perhaps call the police or friends, and take other steps to protect oneself. But the first step would be to hang up the phone. Continuing to listen to the threatening call has no benefit.

It’s the same when scary thoughts enter your mind. Immediately, an assessment can be made as to how serious the threat is, and then steps can be taken to remedy the situation. But an essential point is to hang up on that thought. There is nothing to be gained by listening to that frightening thought over and over, each time scaring the wits out of yourself.

In his recording titled “Emotions as Acts of Volition,” Swami Veda Bharati said that when one notices a violent or harmful thought in his mind, to “drop it.” That’s another way of saying to hang up on it.

So how does one hang up on thoughts?

If a threatening call comes, one becomes aware of the threat by listening to the telephone. By hanging up the phone, one cuts the connection and the unpleasant communication is terminated. Similarly, when one becomes aware of a scary thought they cut the connection by removing one’s attention from it.

Actually, there is a preliminary step one might take, which is called “accentuation.” When one notices that a disturbing thought has entered the mind, before hanging up, one can accentuate that thought–i.e. make it bigger. It’s best to expand it to ridiculous proportions. Here is an example: One time I was scheduled to give a talk, and an hour or so before the talk, a thought came into my mind that “I’ve got nothing to offer and these people are going to hate my talk.” The immediate effect of that thought was a feeling of anxiety and diminishment of energy. But, having noticed what was happening, I immediately began accentuating this thought: walking around the house, I began to shout “I don’t know anything!  I know nothing at all about this subject! I’m a complete incompetent! These people are going to realize it and laugh me out of the meeting!” By saying these things with a lot of energy, I realized it wasn’t true. Sure, I was not a great master at the subject, but I’d been studying and practicing what I was going to teach for many years and definitely had something to share. This greatly reduced the potency of that thought. That’s accentuation.

Whether or not accentuation is done, hanging up on a thought means removing one’s attention from it. There are many ways of doing this. You can direct your attention through your senses and really listen to something or look at something. You can work on a challenging puzzle or analyze something. You can attend to your work. You can focus your mind in meditation practice. One of the best options is to bring your attention into the here and now, and to remove it from the mental place that is creating the fear. A good way to do this is turn your awareness to the moment-to-moment sensations arising from your body or by practicing breath awareness.*

You see, the breath and body sensations exist in this moment. They are not thoughts in the head. If you strongly turn your attention to body and breath sensations, and keep it there for some time, you may find that anxiety and fear decrease. But take care not to let your attention go back to the upsetting thoughts. I’ve intensely practiced this for many years and can attest that it works.

Back in 2001, when the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City, scenes of the burning buildings were played over and over on the TV news channels for days. But how many times did you need to see the destruction? The mind tends to do the same thing. Like instant replay, it plays unpleasant scenes over and over. The best thing to do, when that happens, is what I did back in 2001: turn off the TV. Cut the connection. Don’t keep watching that looping film in the head. Instead, turn your attention somewhere else: to your work, your partner, or, best, to the current moment.

Much later, after your emotions have calmed, you may be able to find a way to resolve the problem that gave rise to the unpleasant thoughts in the first place. But don’t do that too soon or you’ll get looped right back into them.

* Credit for this technique goes to Rick Carson, Author of the book, Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way.

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19 Dec 2021;
07:00PM - 08:00PM
Full Moon Meditation 2020