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How Do I Change Thought Patterns that Make Me Sad?

A psychologist and meditation teacher answers readers’ questions about life and practice. Here, he offers advice to a young man who is struggling with sadness and finding solace in unhealthy habits.

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Dear John,

Long story short, I think I may have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I sing in a choir, and a vocal pop-group. Singing makes me feel very relaxed, but sometimes, I think it makes me so relaxed that I literally fly away. While writing this, I’m understanding that my problem may be that I’m psychologically addicted to cannabis, which I started at age 16 (I am now 19). At this point in my life, I have lost my communication skills. I just don’t feel like talking to or answering people around me. How do I stop myself from thinking thought patterns that make me sad?

Sincerely, Inguss from Latvia

Dear Inguss,

Thank you for sharing some of your journey with me. Your question is multifaceted, and I will do my best to get at the essence of it, which I think is about working with thought patterns that lead to sadness. You have also brought up a few more specific concerns about OCD and addiction. If these issues are causing impairment in your life, I strongly suggest you consult a licensed professional in your country who can offer you a proper evaluation.

Unfortunately, specific advice about mental health diagnoses and treatment are complicated and beyond the legal and ethical scope of what I can address here. What I can offer you is some general philosophical and spiritual council on how to compassionately make contact with and develop a healthier relationship with your sadness.

I will start off my response with getting quite philosophical, and if you bear with me, I will get to concrete strategies for working with the mind and emotions. The philosophical backdrop of our conversation is the dialectic between acceptance and change. As I see it, the desire to change something naturally implies that there is something undesirable or unacceptable about how things are. In this case, the target of the change you want is the sadness.

Now let’s be honest, it totally makes sense to want to transform sadness and the related stream of thoughts leading to it because they are painful. However, I would propose that bypassing challenging emotions is a missed opportunity to make contact with and deepen your relationship with yourself. It is entirely natural for all human beings to experience sadness and it is as important as happiness in making you a complete person. So if we are not going to jump right into changing the sadness, what is the first step?

Interestingly, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” What this means is pushing away experiences, emotions, and thoughts takes a lot of energy and does not leave much to create positive changes. This reminds me of another teaching that we, mindfulness folks, like to use that goes “that which we resist, persists.” In fact, this topic was even on the minds of the mystic poets. There are a few lines of beautiful verse from Hafiz that goes “Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut more deep. Let it ferment and season you. As few human or even divine ingredients can.”

Related: A Meditation for Self-Love and Acceptance

This practice of acceptance is where mindfulness and meditation practice can be a tremendous resource. These practices teach us to sit still, take pause, and allow the parade of thoughts and emotions to come and be seen, felt, and heard. We learn to embrace experience exactly as it is—free from striving, longing, clinging, or avoiding. We recognize the incredible beauty that is ever-present in the simplicity of this very breath, in this very body, in this very moment. The mystics may even say it is about making contact with the divine presence that permeates all moments, all things, and simultaneously goes beyond them.

I want to be very clear that practicing acceptance does not mean non-action. It is quite the opposite in that you have to work very hard to transform the self. At the core, it is about embracing and unconditionally loving yourself and using this love as the springboard from which all changes and all actions stem.

So how do you get there? I recently heard a powerful tidbit of wisdom from a talk given by the psychologist and meditation teacher, Tara Brach. She said something like “the first step in changing any pattern is to pause.” The essence of this teaching also shines through this famous quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom.”

As a psychologist and meditator, I have come to realize and hold an appreciation for how much power the mind has in generating freedom, suffering and everything in between. The mind also tends to move very quickly. Therefore, the path toward gaining freedom from negative thinking is to take a sacred pause.

In that pause, try taking deep feeling breaths, and let the breathing expand the space between the things that happen and the subsequent actions you choose. You have to work hard to train this new way of being so you can step out of negative mind habits and free yourself from the sadness. The sacred pause creates the necessary space for skillful and compassionate response. For more specific strategies, I invite you to look back at my previous articles that describe the R.A.I.N. and S.T.O.P. practices. Those two mindfulness tools are great to apply in working with the mind and emotions.

You also mentioned that you enjoy singing and that helps you relax. I encourage you to nourish yourself through singing and also seek out other activities that bring you joy and draw upon those in challenging moments where you are feeling stuck in the sadness. Ultimately, it is a dance between making contact with and embracing the sadness and knowing when you simply need to let go and shift into pleasurable activities that bring you joy and satisfaction.

In closing, I offer you one more bit of inspiration from the poet, Rumi, “Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

Again, I thank you for your question, Inguss, and I wish you the best on your journey!




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