One of the most useful books I've read is a little self-help manual called You Can Be Happy Matter What, by Richard Carlson. The book was written early in Carlson's career, before he became famous for a series of bestsellers beginning with Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. The later books never appealed to me all that much, but You Can Be Happy … remains one of my favorites.
Carlson's central insight is that you are not your thoughts. His teaching is both simple and profound. He suggests that most of us have the wrong relationship to our own thinking, and that this misconstrued relationship is responsible for most of our angst, depression, worry, and unhappiness in general.
What is this relationship? It is that we think our thoughts are important, when most of the time they are not. They are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go, and it is up to us whether to grant them any importance by focusing on them, examining them, and pursuing them further, or instead to simply let them go.
Suppose you are having a perfectly ordinary day when, for no obvious reason, a thought pops into your head: I really screwed up on that blind date. Maybe the blind date happened yesterday or maybe it happened ten years ago; it doesn't matter. The usual – but wrong – response to this thought is to drill down into it. Yeah, I just can't handle blind dates. Maybe that's why I'm so bad at relationships. I just turn people off. Face it, I'm going to be alone forever.
At this point, you've turned a perfectly nice day into an exercise in self-accusation leading inevitably to a bad frame of mind – probably either anger at yourself, anger at the whole world, or depression. Whatever you were doing a minute earlier seems pointless now, and whatever you had planned to do in the next hour suddenly doesn't seem worth doing anymore. You lie down on the couch, feeling low, and naturally you continue to explore the same thoughts and memories that have brought you down, thus spiraling lower and lower.
This is how most of us behave, at least a good part of the time. We grant our thoughts too much power. We think that there's something significant about them, and that when we take notice of a thought, it must require our immediate attention. We also tend to think that analyzing a problem, worrying at it the way a dog worries at a bone, circling around it to see it from every possible vantage point, will help us to find a solution. It doesn't occur to us that we've spent countless hours analyzing this or similar problems in that way, and all it's ever gotten us is frustration and misery.
So what is the right way to react to the initial thought about the blind date gone awry? Actually, the best way is not to react to it at all. Nor is it to instantly suppress the thought, as if guiltily shoving it into a mental drawer where it can't be seen. That's only another way of giving the thought power – making it so powerful that it must be hidden away like some kind of occult talisman.
The best way is to say yourself, I don't know why I thought about that. It's not worth thinking about now. Or some words to that effect. Then just dismiss the thought and go on about your business.
Though it may be hard to believe, this really works. The subconscious is extremely suggestible, and if you tell it that a certain idea is not important or interesting and certainly not worth bringing up, then the subconscious is much less likely to bring it up again. And the more you reinforce this policy, the less likely it is that the thought will even occur to you. Your subconscious can be trained to stop bringing you things you don't want, much like dog that can be trained to stop bringing you scraps from the garbage can.
Now you might say, What if I would actually benefit from taking a good hard look at my mistakes on the blind date? How else am I going to learn? And that's a valid point. But you're not going to learn anything by an exercise in recrimination and self-abasement. You'd be better off approaching the subject neutrally, when you're in the mood to tackle it without being too hard on yourself. And you're unlikely to get much benefit out of repeating this exercise countless times. Learn what you can from your mistakes, and then close the book on that subject and move on. If your subconscious keeps nudging you to return to this topic after you've gotten what you can out of it, then simply ignore the nudges.
Carlson tells us that nearly all of our emotional and interpersonal difficulties come from granting our thoughts a power they don't deserve. He calls the spiraling nosedive of negative thinking a "thought attack," and observes that these attacks are best handled by nipping them in the bud. Take note of the first negative thought, acknowledge it (don't try to hide it or suppress it), and then simply decide not to take it seriously right now. You can even schedule a time later in the day when you might be willing to take it seriously. Most likely, when that time arrives, you won't even remember it. If you do remember it, you'll probably be sufficiently detached to be able to look at it more objectively and usefully.
From my own experience, I can say that this is a highly effective technique. It's also easy to forget. You can quickly lapse back into old habits. The imagined power of your own thoughts can exert a seductive hold on your ego, a hold difficult to break. But it can be done. It takes a kind of mindfulness, a willingness to step back and look at the thought before committing to it – I mean before committing to even taking it seriously or thinking about it further. Most of the time, once you've taken a step back, you'll find the thought is not worth your time, and you'll dismiss it as effortlessly as you would brush a mosquito off your arm.
Incidentally, this is one of the objections I have to the New Age mantra "thoughts are things." I think this gives thoughts entirely too much reality and importance. It also encourages us to suppress (or repress) our thoughts, by investing them with a fearful power that makes them dangerous to look upon. The opposite is closer to the truth: "thoughts are nothing."
There are limitations to Carlson's method. Though he insists that our happiness is entirely a matter of our own interpretation and that outside circumstances have nothing to do with it, I think some outside circumstances are so dire that no amount of mindfulness, short of the otherworldly detachment of a Zen master, could make them bearable. If you're a prisoner in a concentration camp or the captive of a serial killer, your happiness is really not in your own control. But most of us, thankfully, are not likely to find ourselves in those circumstances. For the ordinary ups and downs of everyday life, the frictions and frustrations, the arguments and disappointments, Carlson's approach works extraordinarily well.
It also has a certain relevance to the whole question of the nature of consciousness. If we are not our thoughts, then what are we? Evidently we are the mind that looks at our thoughts and either investigates them or shoos them away. Which means we are something like "the witness" who habitually stands back from our thoughts and actions, observing and sometimes judging in an impersonal way.
Perhaps it is the witness who is fully real and accounts for the continuity of consciousness that persists across many changes of mind – changes of opinion, changes of knowledge, changes of mood, changes of psychological maturity, etc. When we regard ourselves as essentially the same person we were at the age of six, maybe what we are acknowledging is the persistence of the witness, the observer who is outside the ego with its changeable nature, its endless conflicts, its Sturm und Drang. We are the eye of the storm, and the I in the storm.
And when we get caught up in petty quarrels, ego-based rivalries, and counterproductive obsessions, we're forgetting our essential nature as the witness and becoming ensnared in a briar patch of thoughts that ultimately have no reality at all. We're like a spider that gets stuck in its own web.
At this point we've gotten a little bit away from Richard Carlson's book, so let me circle back to it by saying that my summary of his views is necessarily incomplete and, in itself, probably not very helpful. If it interests you, I suggest reading the whole thing. It's not a long or difficult read, and you just may find it helpful. I know I have.