shades of grey

With all that’s taking place in our world right now (pandemic, violence, loss of security and even life), it’s easy to slip. No, not with alcohol (although that might be happening much more lately), and no, not on a banana peel, but with our thinking. Negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions flourish in difficult times. If we don’t pay attention to our own thinking (metacognition), we are liable to continue along with the same mental errors.

There is a branch of psychology, known as cognitive psychology, which focuses on mental processes. Cognition, or thinking, shapes our behavior and feelings. Furthermore, thoughts, behaviors, and feelings are in a constant relationship: one affecting the other. If we think of a negative event repeatedly, replaying it over and over in our mind, for instance, we can bet that we’ll feel lousy for the rest of the day. If we feel lousy and are holding onto some ugly thoughts, how do you think we may act or behave toward others or in a stressful situation? From another angle, let’s say that we do something without thinking (against our better judgment), and are left feeling guilty or embarrassed. This can lead to becoming fixated on the event, perhaps even labeling ourselves, or calling ourselves names. A downward spiral has begun with thoughts, behaviors and feelings all fueling each other.

Several decades ago, research by psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns lead to identification of some of the most common cognitive distortions and the problems they can cause. Here, I will describe a few of them.

Black-and-White Thinking: This dichotomous, either/or thought pattern is also known as all-or-nothing thinking. Things are good or bad, right or wrong – there is no room for any shade of grey. Because the middle ground has been ignored, and only two sides or outcomes are believed to exist, there is little possibility in finding reasonable ground.

Overgeneralization: Does your inner voice like to use the words “always,” “never,” “every,” or “all?” If so, be on the lookout for falling into the trap of overgeneralizing. One or two single events cannot provide a reliable conclusion. We need much more data to make solid generalizations. For example, if you are stood up on a blind date, that doesn’t mean that blind dating is unreliable or that every scheduled blind date will lead to being stood up.

Catastrophizing: When something unpleasant takes place in your life, do you twist it into something potentially ‘off-the-charts’ disastrous? “A person who is catastrophizing might fail an exam and immediately think he or she has likely failed the entire course. A person may not have even taken the exam yet and already believe he or she will fail—assuming the worst, or preemptively catastrophizing.” (borrowed from GoodTherpay.org)

Should Statements: It’s fairly common to direct ‘should statements’ toward ourselves and others, even though the end result is no fun. Be on the lookout for “should,” “must,” or “ought” because they indicate that you are operating here. “She should have told me sooner!” “I should have arrived to class earlier.” “He ought to thank me for all I’ve done for him.” “I must ace this mornings exam!” If you feel guilt, shame, frustration, anger or bitterness, examine your thinking. Is this cognitive distortion common in your mental life? Should statements serve no healthy purpose and typically lead to feeling lousy. Spot them, challenge them and see what you discover.

A full list can be found online in blogs at goodtherapy.org and psychologytoday.com.

From a cognitive therapy standpoint, we can get a grasp on this whirlwind by first identifying maladaptive thinking – those pesky patterns of thinking that do us no good. Without attention or correction, a negative outlook on life can develop. The correlation with depression comes as no surprise. And again, without attention or correction, these negative schemas are likely to stick around, sometimes for a lifetime. This is bad for one’s health and no good for anyone’s long-term well-being.

A beginning step toward resolution, is to slow down and live ‘in-the-moment’ in order to increase awareness of cognitive distortions as they rise. Every time I have shared the above list with a university student or psychotherapy client – I’m talking hundreds, if not thousands of times – each one of them has quickly identified the distortion(s) in which he or she frequently operates. Just know that these are THAT common. Each time I share these with others, I look at my own patterns of thinking again and again. I’m grateful for the practice because thought patterns can become habitual and need frequent examination. It’s good practice to shine a spotlight on shades of grey.

By tracking our thoughts, we have the opportunity to increase our awareness of our own thinking habits. Do they serve us or would it be best to make some changes? This awareness allows us to challenge ourselves and choose more adaptive thoughts for a more positive way of living and being. There is no shame in adopting more thoughtful, enlightened responses and charting a new course.

 

Here’s to clear thinking,

Kim

To get my book, Extraordinary Dreams, CLICK HERE.

today’s meditation

Last month (Nov. 2017), I concluded the Conscious Chimera article by revealing my openness for dreaming with a deceased loved one that night. I awoke the next morning, November 1st, surprised, yet appreciative, for during an early morning dream I answered a phone call from my deceased paternal grandmother. Wow – I dream with her so rarely! In the dream, we spoke briefly, similar to our phone calls when she was living. She told me she was fine and asked how the family was doing. After our check-in, and knowing that everyone was doing well in general, we ended the conversation. Then, I woke up. This dream was not nearly as profound as the dream I had immediately prior to her death, but I am always grateful for whatever way the grandmother-granddaughter relationship can continue. For this month, I decided to write about an important practice: mediation. A meditation routine supports dreamwork as well as good health. So, that is what I present here, today.

As I sat this morning, on my turquoise cushion, tracking my breathing – each inhale and each exhale – I realized I had not written on this aspect on conscious experience since conscious chimera began. “Not now,” said an inner voice, silently disciplining the mind. As any experienced meditator knows, another distracting thought is just around the corner. Anything to take us away from the task of following the breath, or staying with img_2452present awareness. New associations, distant memories, dinner planning – it doesn’t matter, we know distractions arise. While simple, disciplining the mind is no easy task. We learn to gently become the boss of our conscious attention. The mind can argue with us about this. “You can do this meditation thing later, the kitchen needs cleaning… weren’t you supposed to call your mother!” Staying with the practice is an important aspect of the practice itself. Additionally, as we increase awareness in the waking state, we may discover increased awareness in the dream state.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been taught meditation, as a sitting practice, by contemporary mindfulness practitioners as well as by those immersed in Buddhist-centered traditions (Tibetan Shambhala is one example). But that is not how I began. At 19, my introduction to meditation began with primarily movement-based practices. My Tai Chi and Qi Gong instructors were exactly what I needed in my early years. Back then, it was difficult for me to sit still and nearly impossible to jump right in to tracking thoughts and disengaging mental chatter. Those early experiences served me well and built the foundation for what was to come. Later, in the mid-2000s, I was introduced to a focusing type of meditation, which involved vocalizing vowels (e.g. “Aaaaaaaaahh”). This proved effective in many ways. The practice was active, but in a new way, and the shift in the mediation space was palpable, thus reinforcing. Dedication to those exercises, as a result, took dreamtime to a new level, giving rise to desired lucid experiences.

From my own history of meditation, I have come to view the mind as sort of an entity, with its own agenda. It doesn’t want to sit still. It doesn’t want to go quiet. For me, it seems to enjoy planning for the future and fantasizing about adventure. Fortunately, with practice, there is noticed improvement. Not only can our health and general functioning improve, but we come to see that we do not have to react to the junk life throws our way. There is no need to respond to that mental ‘director’ that does not 12079055_842446395876012_8916130318488297582_nalways know what is best for us. After all, it is not our true essence. The irony is that through sustained, ongoing meditation practice, we come to experience truth, connection to the all and everything…our true essence, our very nature. And sometimes, our practice can lead to a creative project, like a written piece for a blog, such as this one.

If you have never meditated before, but want to start, commit to 10 minutes a day to start. Literally, schedule it – put it on your calendar. Then, at the appropriate time, silence the phone, TV, radio, etc., find a comfortable place to sit, set a timer for 10 minutes, and simply focus on your breath. Mentally track each inhale and exhale. When you catch the mind wandering, come back to the breath. It’s not a contest – if the mind wants to judge or ridicule, fine, but the task for the 10 minute period is to focus on the breath, so just come back that rhythmic cycle again and again, as often as needed. After a solid week (or month) increase the sitting time by 5 minutes. See what you discover from the simple daily 10 minute routine. You might discover something new, when in dreaming or waking.

Questions? Comments? Contact me! I’d love to hear how your meditation practice has enhanced your lived experience, whether asleep or awake.

~Kim