Techniques to bar thoughts from your mind or fend them away?
February 27, 2011 4:00 PM   Subscribe

"Shield your mind..." I don't expect to be mentally attacked, but are there actual techniques to bar thoughts from your mind or fend them away?

Yep, I've been reading the Inheritance series.

Usually when I find myself thinking thoughts I don't want to, I just sort of literally imagine barriers of steel protecting myself, a sort of mental determination. I'm curious to know if there are better techniques to defend against certain thoughts.
posted by nrobertson to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
"If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer."
-Shunryu Suzuki
posted by oinopaponton at 4:06 PM on February 27, 2011 [14 favorites]

There's evidence that trying not to think about thoughts makes you more likely to think about them.

So perhaps step 1: don't try not to think about them.

Step 2: think about other things that engage you.

Step 3: realize that you will not be totally successful. or maybe this should be step 1...
posted by shivohum at 4:06 PM on February 27, 2011

Yeah, as oinopaponton and shivohum have noted, in a very zen way, not thinking about X is thinking about X. You can find an in depth discussion of this in the book "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy."

I think brute force of will can work temporarily, but it's a fools game to make that an ongoing strategy.
posted by zeek321 at 4:11 PM on February 27, 2011

It depends on whether it's an obsessive thought or not. If you're thinking about killing yourself or how you're a horrible person or that your soup has millions of tiny bugs in it and we're all controlled by aliens, thought-stopping can be helpful, as long as you redirect your attention elsewhere pretty fast (instead of, you know, focusing on "I can't think about how I'm a loser" or "I am not a loser!" mantras.)

But there's little point using the "STOP STOP STOP look a bunny" technique on, say, something that's merely distracting you.
posted by SMPA at 4:22 PM on February 27, 2011

Are you talking about thoughts that are put in your mind from outside?
As far as we know, it is not possible for another person or outside entity to put thoughts into your mind by psychic or supernatural means.

The sense that some outside entity is putting thoughts into your mind -- that there are thoughts in your head that aren't "yours" -- is the delusion of "thought insertion". It can be a sign of several mental disorders and if you're having this sense, it's time to see a doctor, neurologist, or psychiatrist who can assess how to help you control this feeling. (Here is a link to some academic research on thought insertion.)

Here are some ways another person can bring a thought to your mind, through natural and non-psychic means:

1. Showing you directly - for example, if I wanted you to believe that some crows are white, I could show you a white crow. (or a fake white crow) Either way, you might come to believe that some crows are white.
2. Telling you, or getting other people you respect to tell you
3. Showing you the fact written in a reference book
4. Convincing a lot of people that it's true, so that it becomes a normal thing to believe, a piece of conventional wisdom that few people question (even though nobody knows quite why they believe it).
5. Convincing a lot of people that it's something people should believe for religious or cultural etc reasons, so they believe it and don't care whether it's true (since the reason to believe it doesn't have to do with its truth, but with its social role)

Normal critical thinking skills are your best defense in cases 1-5.
What kind of evidence should you demand before believing something? Who counts as an expert on your subject matter? What counts as a reliable source on that subject matter? What kinds of beliefs are so extraordinary that you should subject them to extra scrutiny, or require extra evidence? Does someone benefit from me believing this, and are they the main source of evidence in favor of it? Am I believing this because I think it's true, or for some other purpose (eg because it signals my religious, cultural, etc affiliation)?

But maybe you mean thoughts from inside -
About unwanted thoughts that are your own - for example, always thinking about disasters that could happen, even though you know rationally they are very unlikely?

Something to look into is techniques used by people who meditate. Meditating requires quieting the part of your mind that wants to go racing along after these kinds of thoughts. A nice analogy that I've heard is that when you're learning to meditate, which takes a lot of practice, you should think of your mind as a puppy who is being trained. The puppy wants to wander off, but you gently pick it up and bring it back to the place it's supposed to be and sit it down on its mat. Then it will wander off again, and you gently bring it back. Patience and a gentle attitude.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:29 PM on February 27, 2011

You're describing something close to the purpose of mindfulness. It's not about chasing thoughts away though because that tends to highlight them, e.g. "don't think of X," as zeek321 mentioned. Mindfulness rather is about being aware of thoughts, knowing that they're thoughts and flagging them as such so that they dissipate on their own. This is described in Mindfulness in Plain English (third paragraph). In my plainer english, I see it as asserting that you're in control mentally, no steel wall because that just re-energizes a mental conflict and the thoughts themselves. They can just be handled gently and they'll go away.
posted by mnemonic at 4:38 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The unicorn chaser is the time-honored Interweb method. Not that I have adorable pics of an old coworker's dog in my bookmarks bar or anything.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:38 PM on February 27, 2011

Assuming we're not talking about OCD, I recommend the book Thoughts Matter by Mary Margaret Funk. Based on the teaching (largely) of St. John Cassian, it's about controlling thoughts that distract you from God, but many of the principles are more generally applicable.
posted by Jahaza at 4:59 PM on February 27, 2011

If you're talking about other people influencing your thoughts, then you should be sure to get a good night's sleep. There's a reason interrogators don't let their interviewees sleep. Tired people are easy to manipulate because your mind gets worn down.

So catch some zs, already!
posted by elder18 at 6:48 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I feel myself getting worked up about something I'm thinking about, I give myself permission to think about it, for only 5 more minutes. Then my thinking about it is done and I try to "change the subject" in my mind. Yes, sometimes I do drift back to the original topic, but once I realize it I stop myself and change the subject again.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:36 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

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