How Mindfulness Can Reshape Negative Thought Patterns
“Our life is like a silent film on which we each write our own commentary.” ~Unknown Zen Buddhist Master
We spend most of our lives thinking or lost in thought. The average human has 17,000 thoughts daily. Around 90% of them are repeat-thoughts! Unfortunately, we often believe the stories underlying these thoughts, although often, they have little basis in reality. Mindfulness can help us relate more skillfully and wisely to our own thought patterns.
A common issue is that we often get stuck in thinking patterns that reduce the quality of our lives. I call these patterns mental tapes because they usually have roots in the past. (Now, most of us are streaming music instead of listening to tapes anyway!) These tapes often originate from when we were younger, more vulnerable, less mature, and less competent.
I will start with a personal example of an old mental tape. I used to worry unnecessarily about my professional growth as a budding psychotherapist, writer, and professor. The first time I remember this was when I was in 6th grade and had to write my first research paper. My teacher was strict and didn’t provide the guidance I felt I needed. My parents didn’t know how to help me with research either. Back then, I couldn’t stop worrying about it. I barely slept the night before it was due. My 11-year-old self needed a lot of research guidance, compassion, support, and patience; no wonder he worried so much. Fast forward to now—even though I write well, am on track to finish my doctorate in a year, and have always completed what I needed to, I still often get swept up in the “worry about completing future tasks” mental tape from when I was 11!
That old mental tape from 6th grade surfaced recently. Around a month ago when I went to the movie theater with my wife, I had a subtle yet long-lasting burst of anxiety about all I needed to complete that week. This unnecessarily interrupted my focus and enjoyment of the movie. This was an old mental tape from my past—a mere repeat, a meager obsolete replay, that tried to convince me it was only related to what’s happening now. Each time I identify the old tape and its source, it gets weaker. I know this cognitively, but this awareness has not always prevented me from feeling stuck and lost in it.
Mindfulness practice has allowed me to disconnect from this outdated mental tape. How? By compassionately observing my own mind. Mindfully I can realize that throughout my whole life, I have almost always managed to complete the tasks at hand, and even if I didn’t for some reason, I manage well anyway. Mindfulness can help reality kick in. Just like a lake produces a mirror-like image when it’s still (reflecting the surrounding trees and sky), in mindfulness practice, these truths arise naturally as we learn to wisely and compassionately observe and calm our minds.
So how can this help us with our old mental tapes that have unnecessarily brought us down? If you’ve been in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), your therapist likely has helped you identify cognitive distortions and actively challenge them. CBT therapists assume that thoughts directly causes feelings. Therapy is thus about “correcting irrational thoughts,” which will automatically lead to happier emotional states.
Mindfulness and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy offer an alternative to traditional CBT. From a mindfulness perspective, my feeling overwhelmed with responsibility originates from an old mental tape of ruminative thoughts about not being able to complete responsibilities, and all my old fears about what could have happened when I was in the 6th grade, the first time faced with a research paper. Since that mental tape has repeated itself countless times since it developed a connection to neural networks in the brain facilitating its proliferation since. Mindfulness offers this awareness and allows me to do something different. Fortunately, our brains are quite plastic; they can learn, adapt and change no matter how old we are.
So, to change this habit, when I notice that I am simply re-experiencing replays of old thought patterns—“hearing old tapes playing”—I can assess their legitimacy in the now, and step into Ontological Mode of being. This can naturally discredit their basis in reality, as I have always completed what I needed to (letting the facts naturally inform, guide, and nurture the irrational thoughts fueling the obsolete mental tape) so I can enjoy the present moment.
Taking it a step further, I can also see the “old tapes playing” mindfully, as merely mental events, like rainy clouds passing through the sky, not take them seriously and simply stay present in the here-and-now, which is indispensable in Ontological Mode of Being. Realizing that negative thoughts can be triggered by low moods and vice versa, I can notice my emotional states, the thoughts they generate, and continually and gently remind myself that thoughts aren’t reality. From this vantage point, it can be interesting, potentially fascinating to notice the thinking patterns that certain moods engender, instead of mindlessly following their story-line as if they were a truth with a capital T.
In my practice, I mindfully choose to consider the evidence that I have always completed what I’ve needed to. This enables me not to buy into the old conditioned thought pattern (tape) that doesn’t accurately reflect me, and update it with a more meaningful and flexible one that captures all my strengths, accomplishments, and wisdom. I know I complete all my tasks by merely seeing the facts and looking at how far I’ve come. This also helps me savor the present.
You can look how far you’ve come too. You can do the same with mental states or mental tapes that can unnecessarily bring you down, and find refuge in the moment or the current task at hand… What are your most common tapes? According to Dr. Ronald Siegel, among the common (we can give them funny labels) are “I blew it again” tape or “no one cares about me” tape, or “I suck at everything,” tape. Even more basic are “obsessing” or “criticizing,” tapes. We all have them, even when they are often baseless.
This post may seem easier in principle than practice. Every time to practice it gets easier. It is never too late to practice, practice, practice. Through the compassionate, calm, and wise observation you cultivate in mindfulness practice, you can undercut the old tapes by watching them play out and redirecting your precious attention to now and the facts. I created this meditation to help you mindfully observe your thoughts. Dr. Ronald Siegel’s is also effective.
Bottom line: instead of conditioned habits writing my story for and dictating my mental patterns, it’s also time for us to write our own commentaries and live fully in the moment.
About the Author
Jason Linder, MA, LMFT, is a licensed bilingual (Spanish-speaking) therapist and doctoral (PsyD) candidate at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego.