Critical Thought and the Second Level of Awareness

In my last post, I mentioned that our experience of our thoughts is very REAL. This means that we do actually have the critical, negative, hurtful thoughts that we experience and they can harm us and cause us suffering. It's quite common; this is our reality. These thoughts, however, are not necessarily TRUE, and the ability to which they can harm us is more closely linked to how much truth we attribute to them, than the reality of the thoughts themselves. 

I will explain further. The brain is a thought machine. Its job is to constantly churn out thoughts, much like that ticker tape you see running at the bottom of news feeds on TV. For a multitude of different possible reasons (that I won't go into here, because they vary according to each unique individual's temperament and experience) many of these thoughts happen to be critical thoughts. I'll say it again: EVERYONE experiences critical thoughts. The potential for these types of thoughts to wreak havoc on our psyches is directly related to how much truth we attribute to them. For example, if I had the thought: "I am unworthy of love and kindness from others" (level one) and I next assign truth to this (a level two action), I am giving that thought a tremendous amount of power and allowing it to do damage to self-worth. I am effectively arming that thought; this is dangerous for me. Someone else may have the exact same thought and be able to dismiss it due to protective factors: They may practice non-attachment and let it drift by without clinging to it (a skill honed through meditation), they may counter it with a healthy thought (ie. I give love and kindness, therefore I am worthy of receiving love and kindness from others...a CBT technique), or they might check-in with a trusted person who can counter it for them (I call this "checking the facts"). The bottom line:

It's what we do on this "second level" of awareness that matters. We all have the level one critical thoughts. What we DO with those thoughts--how we think about and story the sum total of these thoughts--is what really matters for our mental health. 

The same can be said when we zoom out and examine the reality of our lives as they currently exist. The reality of what we're doing with our lives matters much less than the story we tell ourselves about what we're doing with our lives. I'll provide another example to illustrate:

You take a day off from going to the gym or exercising (level one); Do you write the story that you were lazy and worthless, do you write the story that you listened to your body and rested, or maybe you write a story that exists somewhere in between? (all options for level two awareness actions)

In this case, taking the day off, in and of itself, is not the issue. The actual event has little affect on you. The way this real life, level one, event is storied, however, has great implications for what happens the next day. Before long, patterns of thinking and then behaviors take over. (Energy follows thought! More on that in my next post).

At issue here is the fact that the brain is "plastic," meaning it can be changed throughout the lifespan. We're able to remember this easily when it comes to how we approach impressionable children, but we wrongly assume that it gets fixed at a certain point. The types of thoughts to which we attach, further carve out grooves that make it more likely that we will use those harmful neural channels in the future.

If you're like me, you probably find this both scary and relieving (Ha! Awareness of multiple level two options where I choose to hold both). By practicing mindfulness around the types of thoughts we're attaching to, we can decide which channels we utilize. This means that the longer we can break the pattern of going down the channels of critical thought, the easier it will be to use other, more positive, channels. Eventually your brain will not so quickly default to the critical, harmful story. 

As a way of just starting to practice this concept today,  try to differentiate between the two levels. Are you aware of what's happening on both level one and level two? This is a mindfulness practice. The act of separating reality from the story of your reality is an AWESOME first step.

After you do this, you can begin to open up awareness to other possible stories, and then selectively attend to those that are most helpful and healthy for you. Remember, you get to decide what is true.