Thoughts and feelings can be pleasant enough, but everyone has experienced thoughts and feelings that cause them unhappiness or stress.
When we are stressed we often have a million and one things happening at once and a chattering mind is one of the last things we need. Therefore, it’s very important to be able to spend some time to relax, put things in context and to let go.
Here are some methods that can help letting go, explore why we hold onto thoughts and feelings in the first place and some tips to add to your toolbox.
(1) Focus and pay attention to what is going on and what you are doing. When the mind chatters away in the background, focus on it and recognize that there is a thought chain happening - often significant parts of the mind aren't actually aware of what's happening, as its just part of the background. You can say "I am currently feeling this" or "I am thinking of such and such" This can help focus the mind on what’s happening so it doesn't go off to the next thing. Quite often the thoughts stop just by focusing on them because they are suddenly exposed to scrutiny.
If you look at a calming image, the mind can relax and let go, but it only happens when you stop trying and expecting it to happen.
(2) Observe what's going on to develop an insight and an understanding of how thoughts and feelings control you. By watching the thoughts, it doesn't take too long to see there is two distinct things happening - a theme and a process. The process is the thinking or expressing feelings.
The mind doesn't always need a theme to think, that's when the mind chatters away over what seems an illogical and fairly wild stream of thought. The mind is using thought just like a pacifier or a distraction and often does it when there is physical pain, when it is afraid or trying to protect itself from something. If you watch the mind like a machine, you can sometimes see the mind just grabbing whatever it can find or sense to use as a theme or topic of thought.
Theme based thinking is much more obvious, you might be angry, worried or have a particular feeling over an issue and you think about that issue. These thoughts tend to be repetitive and focused just on the theme at hand.
Be kind to yourself as this is a key way to train the mind that letting go of unhappiness does have benefits.
(3) Recognise that judging yourself is not beneficial. By judging yourself on the theme of those thoughts it can actually make the problem harder to deal with. You might have been thinking about how much you don't like someone then feel guilty or angry for it.
Practically speaking, letting go is not about rights and wrongs and you have to aim not to let this act of classification anywhere near your problems. If you start to consider it is "wrong" to be depressed or worried, or to hate, be angry (etc), or to think its wrong that these emotions should exist or afflict us, then whenever these new thoughts of judgement occur more problems start to happen. This then trains the mind to become habitual or ingrained as a cause and effect process and it becomes harder in future to be in control.
By accepting and letting that feeling go as well is the first step forward as being judgmental can start more thoughts and feelings easily. If your mind is trying to force-feed you thought chains or emotions, judgements are another tool it can use to dominate you. It is wise to remember that our mind is the source of all our manipulative skills so the mind knows more tricks than we are often aware of. It does this as the parts of the mind that crave and are addicted to things want to stay wild with our desires running and controlling us. By and large it is our addictions that drive us all.
(4) Consider your relationship with the thought or feeling. Thoughts usually run out of habit so will pop up again, when you stop being aware. Resolve to let those go as well as not only do you have to stop the chain, you have to prevent new ones.
The difficulty is that there is a pretty central problem: essentially the mind has to be disinterested or disenchanted with the theme & process of thinking or emotionally feeling. Often this is helped greatly by recognizing that the theme and the feeling or thought process at hand is not helping us at the moment. There are a lot of feelings & thought subjects we don't want to let go of or view as being stressful because we often want to explore the themes and issues they represent (such as when being angry, or being anxious etc, we want to think about the who, where, what, why etc).
This specific "wanting to think about" or just "wanting to think", is more powerful than our desire to let go - letting go is really hard when it is simply outweighed by a stronger desire. When we aren't careful or being aware, we just start fighting ourselves which is also part of the trick if you are thinking for the sake of thinking. Fighting becomes another distraction from the issue the mind is running away from - the mind is still in complete control, even though it doesn't look like it. You have to counter the strong "wanting to think about" with a gentle but very persistent "OK, it's time to move on and let go" until eventually the desire to let go is stronger than the desire to think about the issue.
The other problem is feelings are something we see as part of our identity or part of us. We have no desire to recognise that part of us can cause us pain or misery, or that they are able to make us unhappy. People are often trained to think that "all" feelings are precious when they are "me" or "mine". Some feelings cause stress, but some don't. This explains the whole method, you have to observe the thought and feeling long enough to decide - without condemning yourself - if the feeling is worth keeping, or worth letting go of.
(5) Compare this theory to your own experience. If you have a theme based thought you want to let go of think about, try some of these experiments:
Try as hard as you can to avoid thinking about a polar bear, or (more unusual) a purple polka-dot flamingo drinking a cup of coffee. This experiment is quite an old one but still a good one to show the dynamics of thought. The simple fact of the matter is to be able to maintain an effort not to think about polar bears, or when we experience an unhappy thought, we struggle against it, both trying to suppress a thought and struggling against a thought both require applied and sustained effort and the theme (such as the polar bear) as an object. If you keep trying or fighting not to think about it, the bear stays put.
Say you are holding a pen in your hand and want to let go of it.
In order to put the pen down, you have to be holding it.
When you continue to want to put it down, you have to "continue" to hold it.
Logically you can't put it down when you are still holding it.
The more effort and intention applied in "wanting" to put it down, the more grip is applied on the pen.
(6) Learn to let go by relaxing your fight against the feelings and thoughts. These same physics apply in the mind. Because we are trying to force the thoughts away, the more we hold on to them to be able to apply the force of forcing it to go. The harder we try and force it, the more we are tensing and crushing the mind. The mind however responds as though it is being attacked.
The way out is instead of forcing it, just relax the grip. The pen falls out your hand all on its own the same as thoughts and feelings. You may need a little time - if you were using force it may be imprinted on the mind for a short while, because the mind is so used to fighting it so it has become almost ingrained as a mental occupation.
This is so much like the mind really. When we clamp on to thoughts and feelings by exploring them, or trying to destroy them - they are going nowhere - they are locked in tight. We have to relax the grip in order to be able to let them go.
(7) Develop some skills to use when the thought or feeling arises. There is a host of things you can try or ask yourself when there is a thought or feeling that just keeps repeating. Here are some good things to consider or try:
Have you ever read a book, seen a movie or done anything so many times you know everything about it and it just seems uninteresting and boring? If you do the same and watch the thought and be uninterested with it, there is no more attachment to it so its easier to let go.
If the thought didn't leave, manipulate the thought. Run it backwards, twist it, bend it, change it - eventually you can see that you are running the show. By substituting an unpleasant thought with a more soothing thought chain, is a temporary fix, but still a good one in times of need. You can let go of the issue easier when you feel you have more safer ground to stand on.
Make a point of reference. This is important as it gives two things - firstly you can tell far quicker when a series of unpleasant thoughts are occurring and secondly it provides a mechanism to let go of them.
For feelings, ask yourself - “What benefit is this particular thought/feeling?" or “Is this actually helping?" or even "Would I give myself this feeling?". If you find the feeling doesn't actually provide any benefit, that can help you get over them and win back confidence by being less controlled by them.
Practice mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness is an excellent way to keep awareness and focus on what you are doing here and now. This it separates you gently from the thought or feeling, so you can be more distinct and less controlled.
Practice visualization. If you are a busy person with little time to relax, visualising can help greatly. One example to consider is this image:
Imagine a pleasant, beautiful and empty field dotted with flowers and other scenic aspects. Take a minute exploring the open space, open blue sky and clean air. Then imagine a city built on the field with towers and buildings, streets and vehicles. Now let the city slowly disappear again, leaving the empty, beautiful field.
The relevance of this image is that the field represents that our mind is primarily empty and peaceful, but we have built a city of thoughts and feelings on top of it. Over time we get used to the city and forget that underneath it, the empty field is actually still there. When you let go of them, the buildings go and the field (peace and quiet) returns. Understand that unpleasant thoughts and feelings are just another building that can be demolished to return to a more happier and peaceful place. Accept the stress is really there and that its time to stop.