Transform Negative Thoughts with Meditation
Even your negative thoughts want you to find inner peace
This article was featured in Yoga Journal as part of a meditation series by Richard Miller. This is his seventh in a series of 10 columns designed to help you create a lasting and impactful meditation practice.
By Richard Miller, PhD
Thoughts are invisible, intangible, and private, yet they have tremendous power to influence the course of your life. Every day, you experience up to 70,000 of all varieties of thoughts positive and negative, caring and hurtful according to research from the University of Southern California’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. Thoughts enable you to feel hope and connection, as well as fear and isolation. They make you believe you’re capable of great things, or that you’re so helpless you’ll never amount to anything. As the inventor and automobile pioneer Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t - you’re right.”
In large part, thoughts get their power of influence from your body’s reaction to them: Every time you have a thought, whether it’s “I’m capable” or “I’m helpless,” your body responds by secreting hormones that impact your entire nervous system. For example, when you think you’re being threatened (say, you believe someone is breaking into your home), your body secretes cortisol to get you ready to fight or flee. Or, alternatively, imagine being deeply relaxed (maybe snuggling with a favorite pet); in this scenario, your body produces oxytocin and serotonin, feel-good hormones that help you find security and ease.
So it stands to reason that if you can change your thinking or shift your perspective such that your thoughts lean toward the positive, your body will respond by helping you feel more upbeat, and therefore more connected to the world around you. Sounds simple enough, but truly changing your thoughts takes incredible concentration, determination, and courage. Working with your thoughts is much like encountering a mountain lion in the wild. When you see that big cat, your first instinct may be to run, but really you’re supposed to stand your ground and make yourself look large in the face of the feline threat. But if you run from a mountain lion or your thoughts it will likely give chase. For instance, thoughts like “I’m powerless” and “I’m afraid” tend to follow you until you’re willing to turn around and face them. Much like trying to flee a mountain lion, fleeing your thoughts is ultimately futile they will always catch up with you. Your best defense is being prepared.
Just as wilderness training prepares you for a possible mountain lion encounter, meditation readies you to deal with your thoughts. It teaches you how to stay calm when your initial thoughts and reactions are intense and potentially negative; it can help you face your thoughts by teaching you to observe before responding. By working with your breath and sitting with your thoughts and emotions, meditation allows you to see each thought as a messenger with information on how to respond in a way that helps you feel in harmony with yourself and the world around you. For instance, negative thoughts like “I’m not enough” or “I’m helpless” can be perceived instead as signals that you should stop and reflect on what you can do to feel sufficient and capable.
To that end, next time you catch yourself thinking something like “I’m unlovable,” slow down and send loving-kindness and compassion to yourself for doing the best job you can. When you truly hear and respond to the underlying messages your thoughts are conveying, negative notions will start to fade, having served their purpose, instead of chasing you and wearing you down. I call this practice Welcoming Opposite Thoughts, and it’s a surefire way to help you avoid bogging down in a quagmire of negative ideas. It will also help you grow your capacity for experiencing both negative and positive thoughts, images, and memories as messengers here to help you find an unflappable peace within.
Meditation Practice for Welcoming Opposite Thoughts
Recall that every thought gives rise to physical sensations. When you believe “I’m broken” or its opposite, “I’m OK as I am,” you feel a certain way in your body. Your heart contracts or opens. Your gut tightens or relaxes. You feel sad and deflated, or happy and energetic. The meditative practice of Welcoming Opposite Thoughts invites you to tune in to the sensations associated with each of your thoughts, enabling you to think about a broader spectrum of possibilities. You can use the practice any time you catch yourself in a negative thinking pattern, whether that’s during your meditation practice or in everyday life. During the following exercise, take time to welcome a particular thought, image, or memory, and notice where and how it impacts your mind and body.
With your eyes gently open or closed, welcome the environment and the sounds around you: the touch of air on your skin, the feeling of your body breathing, the thoughts that are present in your mind and their accompanying sensations within your body.
Locate a particular thought that you sometimes take to be true about yourself, such as “I’m not enough,” “I should have done it differently,” “I’m broken,” or “I’m powerless.”
Where and how do you feel in your body when you take this thought to be your sole reality? Do you feel it in your gut, heart, or throat? Do you feel relaxed, tense, open, or closed?
Now welcome an opposite thought. “I’m not enough” becomes “I’m OK just as I am.” “I should have done it differently” becomes “I’m always doing the best I know how.” “I’m broken” becomes “I’m whole.” And “I’m powerless” becomes “I’m capable.”
Affirm this opposite thought as your sole reality. Where and how do you feel it in your body? Do you feel it in your gut, heart, or throat? Do you feel relaxed, tense, open, or closed?
Take your time, experiencing each opposite in turn, and then both opposites at the same time, all the while observing how and where this practice impacts your body and mind. (A hint: Don’t stress if you can’t affirm opposites with your thinking mind. It’s not possible. Instead, feel and experience opposing thoughts at the same time, along with the impact they have in your body, allowing whatever happens to happen.) Holding opposites at the same time takes you beyond either opposite into a world of creative insight.
Now, consider intentions and actions that you wish to manifest in your daily life as a result of this practice. For example, here’s what Julie, a meditation student and cancer patient, discovered when she meditated on opposite thoughts:
Julie meditated on her beliefs “I’m unlovable,” “I’m a failure,” and “I’m unable to affect the course of my cancer treatment” with the intention of finding relief from the racing thoughts she was experiencing. She felt sad, fearful, and stuck in these negative beliefs. But then reflecting upon their opposites “I’m lovable,” “I’m OK as I am,” and “I’m capable” helped her to feel uplifted, even as she remained fearful.
When Julie experienced two opposing beliefs at the same time—being uplifted yet fearful—she glowed with her insight: “I’m love itself! I’m always doing the best I know how!” She realized that as “love itself,” she could tolerate being unloved and loved, and failing and succeeding at different times. These insights had a lasting effect on her life. She experienced an ever-increasing intimacy with others and herself, as she was no longer looking to others for love and wholeness, having found both things within.
The challenge of Welcoming Opposite Thoughts is that your mind is engineered to separate the negative from the positive, and this is where suffering arises. When your mind perceives things to be separate, such as being focused on half a pair of opposite beliefs or thinking of yourself as separate from the world around you, you can feel detached and alone. During meditation, you learn to welcome every thought as one expression of your innate wholeness. Your mind may resist this understanding by thinking, “How could this thought be an expression of my wholeness?” But every thought arises with its opposite within a unified field of wholeness. When you welcome opposites at the same time, you can have a glimpse, as Julie did, of the truth that you don’t have to change your circumstances to experience real health, peace, and love.