May 22, 2009

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Anxiety is a trance. Awareness is the beginning of the cure.

Remember the little poem about the man who wasn’t there?

As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today –
I wish, I wish he’d go away.

– William Hughes Mearns

What a wonderful description of anxious thinking. An anxious thought is something we make up. It isn’t even real! Yet over and over again we give power to it, so it intensifies and grows until it becomes the Bogeyman.

Anxious thoughts grow because we feed them by nourishing them with our attention.

The strangest thing about anxious thoughts is how real they seem. Yet all we need do is point our minds at something else, and within five minutes the anxious thoughts vanish entirely.

How can we get into the habit of shifting our thoughts when the man (or woman) who isn’t there comes calling? It’s simple. And with a bit of practice, you can shift your thinking as easily as you’re reading these words right now.

First things first: Trying not to think a thought only gives that thought more energy. You can’t get rid of a thought by telling it to go away. No, you must train your mind to focus on another thought or idea.

One of the best tools I’ve used to help me shift my thinking is Byron Katie’s The Work. It’s a great way to turn an anxious thought around into its opposite — a sort of mental akido. That we can play with our thinking in such a way demonstrates how malleable our minds really are.

Another tool you can use to shift your thinking is something I call vocalizing, and it’s easy. Here’s how to use vocalizing to shift anxious thinking:

  1. Select a passage from a favorite book, a longish poem, or a song that will take about five minutes to say or sing aloud. Some people find spiritual texts work well. I like to use poetry or sing. Whatever works, works. Find something that comforts you.
  2. Read the passage or poem aloud, or begin singing. Start softly, adding inflection as you go.
  3. Speak or sing for five minutes. Feel your voice resonating in your chest. Be conscious of each breath you take. Speak or sing clearly so the words com through loud and clear.
  4. After five minutes have passed, be quiet for a moment. Smile intentionally. Repeat as needed.

Why does vocalizing work? What seems to happen is simply a shift of consciousness from one thinking pattern to another. Speaking aloud engages your body and sense of hearing. The process distracts your mind and literally creates new thoughts.

Experiment with active ways of moving your thoughts around this weekend. Should you find yourself thinking anxious thoughts, try the vocalizing method to retrain your mind into thinking other, positive thoughts.

You are the driver of the train that is your mind. Take it where you want it to go.

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