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Being Captive to the Thoughts or Learning to Choose

June 15, 2013

As human beings, we are constantly bombarded with thoughts.  Many of these thoughts are not volitional in the sense that we don’t necessarily choose them.  They may simply enter our consciousness without a deliberate choice. Sometimes, they also affect our emotions, again without any choice on our part. If, without reflection, we perceive all our thoughts as expressions of what is real and true, we are setting ourselves up for further problems. But if we can become aware of the choices that are still ours, we can find freedom, the freedom that God intends for us to enjoy.

Let me provide an example. Suppose I have the thought that I’m going to be a miserable failure in my job interview.  I’ve been out of work for months and perhaps have lost my confidence in my own skills and ability to perform the tasks required for the job for which I am interviewing.  This thought pattern persists and I go to the job interview in a defensive mode, secretly hoping the interviewer won’t pick up on my inadequacies.  I sit down for the interview and fail to make proper eye contact with my interviewer.  My answers to the most basic questions are evasive and reflect a lack of confidence in my abilities.  I don’t get the job.  Was I not offered the job because of my lack of skills or was it due to the fact that my thought pattern sabotaged my ability to communicate effectively?  For the sake of argument, let’s say it was indeed my negative thought pattern that led me to failure.  How do I recognize those destructive thought patterns and disassociate myself from them?

Cognitive therapy suggests demonstrating that the thought is not accurate and replacing that thought with a more functional alternative. Another slightly different approach is offered by Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), a relatively new mode of therapy that encourages a kind of psychological flexibility that enables one to slip through the net of debilitating thoughts. This flexibility is achieved by recognizing the following six fundamental choices that we have with respect to the thoughts and ourselves and, most importantly, by making a wise choice:

  1. We can choose to react to negative thoughts or simply accept the fact that we have had a negative thought.
  2. We can choose to fuse with the thought and make it into the Truth about us or we can defuse from the thought realizing that a thought is an idea, a word, and a sound among other ideas, words, and sounds.
  3. We can choose to pay attention to that thought of past failure or future doom or bring ourselves into the reality of the present moment.
  4. We can choose to pay attention to our ideal image of our self or to pay attention to the self that notices the thoughts and even the self’s ideal image.
  5. We can choose to let our thoughts make us guilty or compliant or we can choose to focus on our values and living according to them in the moment irrespective of our thoughts.
  6. We can choose to fluctuate between inactivity and impulsivity or we can commit ourselves to our values and act accordingly.

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note the reality of human freedom with respect to temptations, writing “Being made in the image of God, each human being receives as a royal birthright the sovereign power of the intelligence and the free will. In fact, Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, well aware of the radiant examples of the martyrs and great ascetics, writes, ‘God bestowed on our will so much freedom and power, that even if every kind of sensual provocation, every kind of demon, and the entire world united to take arms against our will and vehemently to make war against it, despite all that, our will remains entirely free to despise that attack and will what it chooses to will or not will what it does not choose to will.’”

We can choose to act virtuously even when thoughts and emotions pull in less than virtuous directions. We can love when we don’t feel like loving, pray when we don’t feel like praying, and praise God when we don’t feel like praising Him. A thought can tell us that we are a failure and we can act like a victor in Christ Jesus and even be a victor through His grace. It’s not about acting or pretending, but about doing what we believe in most deeply. We can choose to live with all sorts of thoughts and feeling clamoring for attention, without letting them rule us and carve out our path.

Take my earlier example, instead of fearing the thought of being a failure, I could accept the fact that I had the thought that I am a failure. I can choose to view it as a thought with less real substance than the nose on my face. I can choose to not look back at my past unemployment or forward to future unemployment, but to the present in which I am doing something constructive, the seed of a new and better future.  I can notice that I think things about myself with the realization that my opinion is not nearly as important as is doing what I feel God is calling me to do at this moment. I can focus on being present to others, loving others, and praying for others. In such an instance, there is no need to worry and stumble, but the opportunity to seize the present moment with faith and trust in God’s loving providence.

I think it should be clear that psychology can often provide useful forms and molds, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, that when filled with Christian values and virtues can lead one beyond healthy functioning that such therapies try to offer the suffering, for those Christian values and sacred virtues on their own lead to the source of all value and virtue, Christ Himself. And when that takes place, one begins by the grace of God to succeed at what matters most: living the truly good life before God and neighbor.

  1. mary benton permalink

    Thank you, Fr. Alexis. I agree with everything you have written here but would like to add a thought, if I may. I have encountered many people whose view of self (and God) has been very damaged by early abuse and neglect. For such people, the sense of failure or worthlessness is often so fused with sense of self that challenging or choosing other thoughts seems impossible or fruitless. While certainly the grace of God can heal all things, sometimes such early experiences leave people doubtful of God and therefore not open to this grace.

    I add this to encourage those who find themselves in this predicament: these changes can still be made but it is often a long process and is best walked with someone who understands the depth of the wound. To have a steady therapist or spiritual father is a great help in finding the truth of who you are (vs. the “truth” you internalized when too young to question). It also becomes easier to believe in God when the person you talk and walk with treats you with the love and compassion of Christ Himself.

  2. Thank you, Mary, for your own discerning comments and providing encouragement for the many who do need it.

    Yes, for some people, the realization that they can choose other thoughts can only come by a radical encounter with someone whose love and compassion can pierce through the hardened shell solidified by early trauma, so that the person can see the self in another light in a holy present that softens a sometimes evil past. On this topic in Ancient Christian Wisdom, I quote Harry Stack Sullivan who writes “Unfortunate experience at any developmental phase may do great damage to one’s possibilities of future interpersonal relations— and curiously enough, equally true—very fortunate experience at any developmental stage may do much to remedy the limitations already introduced by previous developmental misfortunes.” So many of the stories in the desert fathers and mothers about such encounters that truly give life. All of this goes to show how very dependent we all are on one another and why we cannot hope to make progress along our path to the love of God without moving forward on the path to the love of our neighbor.

    Fr. Alexis

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  1. Perceiving God’s Presence in the Present | Ancient Christian Wisdom

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