3 Steps to Mindfully Shift Negative Thoughts and Feelings

04/08/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

The belief "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is false, at least as far as brain science is concerned. It has proven that the brain is far more malleable than we ever thought. We can develop new relationship, communication, and money-management skills at any age, especially with mindfulness training.


Mindfulness allows you to set aside the instantaneous, unwholesome thoughts that limit one's ability to think of creative solutions and embrace more positive, wholesome ones, laying new neural pathways and building what I call, mindstrength. This is the ability to very quickly and easily shift out of a reactive mode and become fully present in the moment. It gives you mastery over your thoughts and feelings, opening your eyes to whether the products of your mind are useful tools for self-discovery or merely distractions.

Often, unwholesome, painful thoughts are about the past and the future, or cause and effect: You might think, "If I wasn't able to do that in the past, I won't be able to do that in the future" and "Because of what I did in the past, I can't create the future situation I'd like." Again, by applying mindfulness training, you open a doorway to a mindful-inquiry process in which you can examine these beliefs and let go of a sense of being stuck or trapped. Painful and fearful thoughts about the past and future will prevent you from focusing on the present, and accepting where you are at this moment in time.

Here are three mindful techniques from my book, Wise Mind, Open Mind to help you shift painful afflictive thoughts and feelings.

Step One: Examine Unwholesome Thoughts

When distorted and unwholesome thoughts arise, stop, observe what you're thinking, and ask yourself, "Is this true?" You can consider the evidence that it is and weigh that against the evidence that it isn't, keeping in mind that extreme statements such as "I'll never..." or "It always happens that..." are almost certainly distortions. Using logic and reason, you can analyze a situation and determine whether you were assuming a worst-case scenario, and consider what the best-case scenario and even the most likely scenario are. If you don't know whether a particular negative thought is likely to be true, you can explore the possibilities instead of being pessimistic and assuming the worst.

Step Two: Replace Unwholesome Thoughts with Wholesome Ones

Ideally it is best to work with a mindfulness trainer or a therapist to help figure out specific wholesome, remedying thoughts. It this isn't possible, then write out the replacement thoughts. When you first begin using this remedy of a positive thought, feeling, or sensation, you're likely to feel resistance, as the old neural pathways in the brain protest, "But this isn't true!" One way to get around this obstacle is to design remedying thoughts that feel true in the moment. Instead of trying to replace an unwholesome feeling of longing and emptiness with the belief, "I'm going to meet the love of my life very soon," you can remedy that afflictive feeling with a thought such as "I'm doing all the right things to attract and create a healthy, loving partnership," which is less likely to arouse feelings of dishonesty, discomfort, or embarrassment. In mindfulness training, you actually teach the mind to create wholesome thoughts, and in so doing, you reprogram your brain, replacing old neural networks with new ones that foster creativity and optimism.

Step Three: Reinforce New Wholesome Thoughts

Once you've generated a new positive and healing thought, make a point of saying the words silently or aloud every time you witness yourself thinking negatively. Let's say you're experiencing the recurring negative thought, "I'm no good with numbers." First look back to the source of that belief, examining your past. You may simply need to notice that your mind is creating a negative loop of self-talk, comprised of self-defeating thoughts. By adopting the new, wholesome thought, "I'm fully capable of learning anything I wish to learn," your mind flow will begin to shift and travel on a more wholesome course.

Creative individuals have learned the habit of rejecting limiting, constrictive thinking. They allow the witnessing mind to arise, look at an obstacle, and say, "Perhaps that's true, but let's sit with that idea for a while." In Buddhism, we say that a constrictive quality of mind keeps mind flow within a narrow range of awareness, while mindfulness allows us to drop our limitations and ultimately enter the creative space of open mind.