Have you ever wanted to know how to control your thoughts, or if it is even possible? Many people try to do this through techniques such as meditation and the like, but often it fails. Sometimes it seems as though it is impossible to gain control over your own mind. We are overrun with uncomfortable emotions that we simply don't know what to do with.
But is it possible? In this post, I'll give some tips on the best way to retrain your mind to respond in the way you'd like it to, by working with the subconscious mind.
You Control Your Inner State
The first thing I'd like to emphasize is that you are in full control over your own mind. Many people feel like they are a victim of their own thoughts and emotions, but the truth is that you can easily take control.
Of course, it takes practice, and you aren't always going to be successful at it at first. Sometimes, it feels better to be angry than to put forth the effort to control that anger and move into a more beneficial frame of mind. However, it is possible. Never blame someone else for the way you feel. The responsibility falls squarely on your shoulders.
But wouldn't it feel better to realize that if you are in a place of anxiety, fear, or depression, there is a way out? I've been dealing with anxiety for years, and though I still experience it from time to time, I now have a collection of tools that can help me to move into a better state.
Can You Control Your Thoughts?
In a way yes, and in a way no. All of us have had the experience of having random thoughts arise that we did not call upon ourselves. I would say that upwards of 99% of all thoughts that travel through your mind in any given day are ones that are spontaneous, and have little to do with what you choose to think about.
What you have to realize is that you have a subconscious mind always at work processing your day-to-day experiences, and filtering them through your already-existing beliefs. Your conscious mind is a very small part in comparison to the power of your subconscious mind.
It would be like being on the computer, and wondering how you received a new e-mail, when you didn't intentionally perform the thousands of operations it took to connect to the mail server, fetch your mail, and download it. If you really wanted to, you could perform all those steps, if you knew how. But why would you want to? You have a program that can do all of those habitual steps for you.
Similarly, in your own body, you have a program of sorts that constantly digests your food, makes sure you are breathing, and that all your senses are operating as they should. You don't question why you are able to see something, when you didn't explicitly give your body the command to see. It's just naturally done for you.
And so it is with your thoughts. As your subconscious works through your everyday experiences, it triggers a wide array of thoughts that may have little to nothing to do with what you are focusing on at the moment. Alternatively, it might bring up scenarios in your mind that make you feel anxious or fearful. You didn't ask it to bring up these thoughts, but it did anyway.
Why does your subconscious mind do this? Essentially, it is doing what you programmed it to do over years of experience. If every time you thought about money, you reacted in a fearful way, then your subconscious is going to habituate the process of bringing up fearful thoughts about money. You don't intentionally choose to have these thoughts, but it's simply doing what you've indirectly told it to do.
So to summarize, you can't directly control your thoughts. Your subconscious operates in the background, underneath conscious awareness, and you just don't have the mental bandwidth required to act as a gatekeeper for each and every thought.
That's why I think meditation is often misguided. Generally its aim is to empty your mind. You can empty your mind all you want, but the moment you allow thoughts to enter back into it, the subconscious will get right back to its old habits.
So what can you do, then? How can you harness the power of your subconscious mind to successfully learn how to control your thoughts?
The Indirect Approach to Controlling Your Thoughts
If your subconscious is simply doing what you've told it to do, then, well, tell it to do something different. If you don't like the programs you have installed on your computer, uninstall them and replace them with new ones.
Much of my work with my spiritual coaching clients is changing these subconscious programs. If you don't like the results you are getting, change the programs that are generating these results. Seems simple enough, right?
Yes, in a way. But it is also very difficult. Your subconscious wants to keep things the way they are, because this is a known. Your subconscious mind is extremely fearful of unknowns, even if those unknowns would be better for you. That's why working with a spiritual coach can be beneficial: there is someone to make sure you aren't slipping back into your old patterns, and to keep you accountable.
So what can you do? There are two things you have complete control over:
- Your reactions to thoughts
- Where you place your focus
Let's take a look of each of these individually:
Controlling Your Reactions to Thoughts
Emotions are the language of the subconscious mind. It cares nothing for logic, but will happily respond when emotions are involved. The stronger the emotion, the better.
Have you ever noticed that situations in your life that caused strong emotion tend to come to mind more readily? You can remember that time when you were embarrassed while speaking in front of an audience, but you're hard-pressed to remember what you had for dinner last Monday.
This is because the subconscious will happily bring up situations that are associated with strong emotions. It can understand these experiences, in its own way at least, and derive learning from them. For instance, if you had a bad public speaking experience, and felt ashamed and embarrassed, your subconscious mind learns from that that public speaking is dangerous. You can reason with yourself all you want, but your mind will always think that public speaking is dangerous, as long as that program is still in place.
When you deliberately cut off the emotional response to thoughts, you are literally starving that subconscious program of the nourishment it needs to survive. If every time you think about that public speaking experience, you refuse to feel embarrassed, slowly your subconscious mind will eliminate that program, because it no longer has any use for it. As that happens, you will have fewer and fewer thoughts about the horrors of public speaking. Then, perhaps you can even begin to train your subconscious mind that public speaking is safe.
So how do you actually control your response to thoughts? There are really many, many techniques. However, the one I'll discuss here is mindfulness.
You've probably heard of mindfulness. Basically, it is to be aware of every part of your experience— your breathing, the sensations on your skin, etc. I like the definition of mindfulness provided here: “Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.”
Here, in particular, I mean mindfulness of your thoughts.
You have to meet your thoughts with unattached awareness. Usually when a thought comes up, you are invested in it. You believe it is true, and you get wrapped up in it. And the more you run away with a thought, the more that thought grows in power, and more thoughts like it arise.
However, when you meet your thoughts with unattached awareness, you see them for what they are. They are just images, sounds, or sensations imagined in your mind. They have no reality on their own. Your own subconscious is bringing them to the surface because it thinks they are important, but you don't have to agree.
As you do this, it robs the thought of the power it needs to survive. It needs you to be interested in it. It needs you to believe in it. When you don't, it is just another thought in your conscious mind, with no power over you whatsoever.
So to learn how to control your mind, you need to only give attention to those thoughts that you want to encourage and allow their power to grow. If there is an undesired thought, you want to completely ignore it.
Note that you should not resist the thought. Do not push against it, believing you should not be thinking this. Remember, you really have no power over what thoughts are here right now, only over what thoughts will be more likely to arise in the future.
The more you push against a thought, the more your subconscious believes it is important, again because it is generating a strong emotion in the form of resistance. So when you try to stop yourself from thinking a thought, you are actually engraining it even more into your subconscious.
This should be more of a detached acceptance. You accept the thought is here, because really what other choice do you have? But you see it as just another thought, with no importance of its own. You simply accept it, observe it, and let it be what it is.
If you feel that you are beginning to push against it, just keep working on acceptance of that thought. I'm not saying necessarily acceptance of the content of that thought, but acceptance that the thought is here right now.
As you do this, the thought will lose its power. It will naturally go away of its own accord, and will not be as likely to come up again. If you do this every time that thought arises, very soon it will lose all of its power. This is what I call the path of acceptance.
Controlling Your Focus
You got to this place because of undisciplined focus. You allowed yourself to focus on things that were not effective to you. The more you focus on something, the more you train your subconscious mind to respond in that way.
For example, if every time you think about money, you focus on fearful thoughts around it, or focus on not having it, you are training your subconscious mind to believe in lack, and to respond in a fearful way when the topic of money comes up.
I've shown you above through mindfulness and the path of acceptance how to reprogram your subconscious mind to uninstall this old belief. But now, you have to be more purposeful about your focus.
Taking the topic of money once more, when you think about money, you must decide how you would now like to place your focus. Would you like to think about the money you do have, and how wonderful that is? Or would you like to think about how many bills you have, and worry about not having enough?
It's not going to be easy at first to change this. Again, your subconscious mind runs on habitual responses. You've made it a habit to focus in the way you have. Doing the acceptance step above will do a lot to help defuse that negative habit, but it still takes some persistence.
Once again, you should not push against the old habit. If you find yourself doing the same thing, go back to acceptance, and once the thought is neutralized, redirect your focus into a more positive direction. It should not take a lot of effort.
As you do this, your mind will start to bring up the desired thoughts more and more. You will find yourself celebrating the good instead of fearing the bad. It will not happen overnight, but you will see the balance begin to shift.
How to Control Your Thoughts
So, can you control your own thoughts? Yes, in a matter of speaking. But it is more of a process than something you can just do in the moment.
Once the thought is here, it is here. You can't undo that. What you can do is to make it less likely for it to come up in the future, not by resisting it, but by actually accepting it, and then redirecting your focus somewhere else instead. I would call it less controlling your thoughts, than training your mind to respond in the way you want it to.
Have you struggled with learning to control your own thoughts? Please comment below and let me know about your experience.