How to get rid of unwanted thoughts

© Kees de Vos

A friend of mine is plagued with unwanted thoughts.

He’s been diagnosed with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and I can tell how bad he is at any given moment by the number of times he calls me — he says I say the same stuff as his psychologist but I’m a lot cheaper! :-)

I mean… this is a guy who is bordering on reckless in many areas of his life but is brought to his knees with fear from thoughts that are totally irrational…

If I told you what they were you’d think it was silly but these silly thoughts dominate his life completely.

I don’t believe in the OCD label, at least not in his case. What I see is an extreme example of the issues we all face — the inability to drive our own mental car, the inability to choose the focus of our attention, the inability to see thought for what it really is…

Roll up! Roll up!

My friend and I have the same conversation over and over…

“How do I get rid of these thoughts?”

“You have to not pay attention. There is only one method — distraction. Pay attention to something else.”

Sounds simple eh? It is simple! The question is — can you do it?

Say you’re walking through a fun-fair when one of the stall holders is giving you the hard sell. We’ve all been there. He’s in your face basically, but you know instinctively that any attention you give him will only make the problem worse. If you even look at him you know he just won’t leave you alone.

Some thoughts can be like that — they’re in your face, they urge you in the strongest possible way to act out a certain thing.

Thought becomes you… unless you watch

I was watching a video clip of Eckhart Tolle the other day… He said:

“We notice only the content; we don’t see the field in which the content happens.”

I remember too, a lecture by Alan Watts who drew a circle and asked his students what the circle was. Some said a ball, some said it was the sun and so on. They were all wrong… it was a hole! We don’t notice the background.

Thoughts and feelings can have amazing power. They suck your attention right in and you have no power to stop it. They suck you in so much that you no longer notice the field (you), only the content (thought/feeling).

That’s the problem my friend has. I’ve told him the solution to his problem a thousand times but he’s struggling to actually do it. His thoughts, backed by his belief have too much power.

And make no mistake; we’re talking a lot of power here. OCD = compulsive = no choice. We all have OCD to some extent. Little or no choice.

Thankfully, over time and with constant practice, things are getting better but it’s a tough road and progress is sure, but painfully slow.

Trauma — useful or dangerous?

In his case, a childhood trauma was the event that started all this mess. Traumatic events have amazing power to affect our unconscious minds and generate fear. This is a good thing.

If you’re walking though the jungle and get attacked by a lion, it’s this very same process that stops you repeating the same mistake again. You learn when to fear a lion attack and that is a good thing!

But if trauma is attached to insignificant events, then those insignificant events take on the fear that should be reserved for lion attacks. Say your parents always fought at the dinner table and caused you to be always in a state of anxiety at meals times, then food would become something to fear, by association.

This initial cause can then be strengthened over the years by your attention until life-stopping phobias can result. Now we have a deep problem that’s really hard to shift.

Still… not paying attention to unwanted thoughts is the true solution. But can you do it?

Finding freedom

First, you have to see the field in which the content takes place. There has to be space between your thoughts. When there is a gap, suddenly you notice the thought arising. There is more chance of your being able to choose, when there is space.

But the real bottom line, the true solution, the therapy of therapies is meditation. This is the practice where you learn how to get space between thoughts — where you notice a thought and can look at it with curiosity.

This is where you learn how to be free, where you learn to say “yes” or “no”, where you learn where the off switch is.

If you have no freedom over your thoughts, then you’re merely a physical puppet of mind-energy — a proverbial “leaf in the wind”, with no control over yourself or freedom at all. It’s like getting into your car, shutting your eyes tight and pressing your foot down on the accelerator…

No, we want to choose where the car goes and be able to steer, surely?

You’d have to be crazy…

The other component to my friend’s problem is belief. Of course, he believes his silly thoughts are true… it’s his own mind generating the fear, so if he didn’t believe his own mind he’d have to admit he was crazy.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, he is not the content of his mind and so secondly, he’s not crazy. His mind is working perfectly to the program. It’s the content, the program, the conditioning, that doesn’t serve him.

So, he is not the content. He would still be himself if he’d not had that trauma as a child. Identification with content is a big problem. We define ourselves by the content, by our experiences. But that’s not us.

Our beliefs, experiences and thoughts are often random programmings of life… interesting, often beautiful, sometimes ugly but they’re not us. They define our personality but that’s not us either. “Persona” is Greek for “mask” did you know?

While we identify with all these things we aren’t free to choose something else…

The solutions…

The belief part has to be dislodged as much as possible by reason. In my friend’s case, explaining to him at length why his fear is irrational opens the door to him letting it go and being motivated to do the not-work of distraction — not paying attention.

If he still truly believed his fear was valid, he would never do what’s required because he would still believe the fear served him. Once the understanding is there — that the fear, or the habit of thought does NOT truly serve your best interests, you’re free to try to get rid of it.

You uproot unwanted thought and fear by practicing meditation. It’s tough to see the process for what it is in everyday life when your mind is bombarded by triggers and sensory input constantly. By making everything quiet you see the process for what it is.

I am the background

Here you are… “I AM”

There is the thought.

The thought happened.

The thought has no power unless I give it more attention.

I have choice.

Unless you’ve ever tried to meditate, you won’t understand how little power you have over thoughts that happen to you.

When I first started meditating over 20 years ago, the very first morning, I had 30 minutes meditation planned — I started off just fine… then 20 minutes later I remembered I was supposed to be meditating!

Twenty minutes!

Lost in thought

Thoughts are somewhat like snooker balls. One crashes into another into another into another without ceasing forever and ever and each thought sucks you in — in a word… hell. There’s no peace to be found here, no now, no joy.

We reap what we sow and thoughts are seeds. If you’re not choosing what you sow, you won’t be reaping what you want.

I can’t meditate… it makes it worse!

My friend won’t do it. He won’t do the not-work. He admits he’s lazy but there’s more to it. When he’s having a few good days there’s no motivation. When hell descends on him he’s highly motivated but often in a state of high anxiety.

By the time the thoughts and feelings have escalated into anxiety it’s virtually impossible to rein it in. You have to nip unwanted thoughts in the bud. Spot them arising and withdraw attention before they trigger big emotions and fears.

By the way, if it’s gone pear-shaped and anxiety takes over, the best thing to do is exercise. You’ve got no chance of calming down when you’re pumped with adrenalin.

Also, when he tries to meditate, he has to face his inner demons close up through what feels like a big big magnifying glass and that feels scary at first. The solution to that is to start with relaxation techniques — get out of “fight or flight” and into “the relaxation response”.

So anyway, I can’t convince him and he’s chosen to attempt to just try and not pay attention. This is the slow route as I said, because it’s difficult to see the process with a thousand thoughts, sensory input and internal triggers going on.

You can’t fight the darkness

Meditation teaches you that attention is where the power is. You cannot try to suppress or fight any thought or feeling. That’s just more attention!

The solution is to notice it, let it be, let it go and choose a different focus.

Put your attention onto something else. As difficult as it is to ignore the fair ground stall holder, that’s what’s required. If you go up to him and scream and shout for him to go away, things are likely to get even nastier :-)

At first it takes every ounce of inner strength to hold your attention onto something else, to ignore the unwanted thought. But as you persist, it gets easier and easier until eventually, the thought has no more power over you.

Ignore thoughts you don’t want and hold onto thoughts you do want. That is power! It’s the power to say yes or no. And the same applies to feelings, which are emotional reflections of thoughts.

“I just wanted to say that since I read this article I have had no issues at all. What you wrote cured me and I am totally amazed by it. I am so impressed with the results, I feel totally different and peaceful.

I have seen so many health professionals over my problems, but none has ever come close to the advice that you give. Thanks Mike you have honestly changed my life.”— John Woods, Australia

“For the last week I’ve been practicing indifference towards unwanted thoughts + quick and intense shifting of attention to anything else.

When I started doing it, I got relief in few minutes as the quality of fear associated with these recurring thoughts was gone. Within hours I found calmness and peace growing within me.

It took an initial 3-4 days to have full grasp over the method and develop some more understanding. And now my thoughts have become very much reduced in frequency, and they have lost their power and don’t trouble me anymore. And it’s all because of one technique only.

I am sharing my experiences with other people having O.C.D. on internet and telling them about your website and trying to help them as I got it when I needed it the most. Sir, you have changed my life. and all that I can say is THANK YOU.”— Shivesh, India

Meditation is freedom…

…and that folks, is how you get rid of unwanted thoughts.

Best wishes,
Michael Kinnaird

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Michael Kinnaird is the author of Happy Guide, the result of a 20 year exploration into what works for health and happiness.

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696 thoughts on “How to get rid of unwanted thoughts

  1. Hi Tyler,

    From my perspective. OCD is just a label for an extreme example of the issues we all face.

    Anyone can create a monster by focusing on a scary thought and building and building until it’s obsessive and compulsive. It’s a matter of degree.

    Keep it simple. Choose “yes” or “no.” Do I give this attention or not?

    Like I said in the article, putting your attention onto something else is sometimes hard but you do your best.

    The fact that you asked this questions tells me you’re probably still dwelling on this.

    How do you ignore someone in real life even if they are bugging you? You “ignore.” You don’t give attention even when they are demanding it.

    The thought is primitive. It thinks it serves you because you initially attached great importance to it.

    Don’t think around this. DON’T try to figure out how to get rid of it, what it means, if you’re ill, if you’re going to get ill, what triggered it, why is it here, Am I crazy?

    All this is more attention which FEEDS it.

    No attention to do with anything related to this thought. As you become aware of something related to this, focus intensely on an external object. Do it quick, nip it in the bud. You’ll get good at it and then it will become a good habit.

    Don’t be on your guard. When a thought comes, you have a simple plan, don’t look for it or watch for it coming. That is more attention.

    No attention.

    Like

  2. so can this maybe be a symptom of OCD?..because i do understand that OCD invovles constant unwanted thoughts that could be very uncomfortable

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  3. exactly! mike thats just what it is and like i said im not that type of person at all..and i thank you alot mike your a powerful great guy and i know that you help people out in times of annoying thoughts!

    mike GOd bless you

    tyler

    Like

  4. Hi again Tyler,

    Ok I’ll try to finish your question now :-) I was going off at a tangent anyway.

    Random thoughts can be conditioning that are triggered by another thought or even a smell or an external event. It could be so many things like I said.

    And so many things also play into the quality of thoughts you have… like if you are well rested, have eaten well, whether you feel good about your life and so on.

    It’s all incredibly complex but in terms of what you need to do it’s incredibly simple. You choose “do I pay attention to this or not.”

    Thoughts are information that’s all. Some are quality thoughts and some are garbage — a lot depends on the quality you “put in.” You know, garbage in, garbage out!

    The fear reaction you had to the thought is probably why it’s hanging around. If you think about it, it’s emotional fear that you attach to images in scary films that keep them coming back.

    When you fear something you tell your mind you’re in danger and so naturally, that primitive part of the mind will do it’s best to protect you from what you fear. It will keep reminding you about the danger!

    You have to tell that part that the fear is gone by attaching “unimportance” to that thought now. Having the attitude “oh that’s just that silly thought” and ignoring it, it will go away it time.

    What you don’t do is fuel it by attention. Attention turns up the volume, ignoring turns down the volume.

    Remember that and you have tremendous power over your life. “Do I pay attention to this or not.” One of the most powerful things you can say to yourself!!

    Mike

    Like

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