I used to be a person who, though unusually optimistic and resilient in many ways, could often be prone to a negative train of thought I now playfully refer to as “awful-izing.” I have also heard this propensity called “catastrophizing.” Regardless, once aboard this train, it can take you a long way down some dark tracks before you realize you are not at all where you hoped or intended to be.
The distinguishing qualities of a negative train of thought would be somewhat as follows:
- Something difficult or disappointing happens, or we hear some “bad” news. This is the “engine.” Negative thoughts and/or feelings begin attaching themselves to responding to this event, like cars on a train.
- After a period of repetitive indulgence, the negative thoughts and beliefs begin building a story and making a case to prove themselves true and/or worthy, and the engine starts chugging down the tracks.
- Like a big magnet, the original negative thought starts seeking and amassing all forms of reinforcing experiences, data, and external validation – picking up more train cars along the way.
- Then, unconsciously, we can begin to act in ways that corroborate and buttress our negative beliefs, creating additional reasons and reinforcing experiences to justify a dour outlook.
- Finally, with way too many moments (hopefully not hours or days) slipped by, we can find ourselves with a big, brooding, bummed-out, self-righteous worldview with which to contend. Station Stop: The Blues. Next Stop: The Dumps.
- And we wonder, “How did I get here?”
I admit my awfulizing tendency somewhat tentatively, but also assured that I am not the only person occasionally prone to these kinds of “habits of mind.” I also share this because I believe that difficult mental and emotional patterns can teach us a lot about developing positive patterns, if we approach our tendencies mindfully, compassionately, and with gratefulness.
The essential insight—that thoughts and feelings come and go, and that we may have thoughts, but they do not have us—can spark a small revolution in anyone open to the teaching.
Mindfulness helps us to stop in our tracks, and take a breath. It wakes us up out of sleepwalking or escalating our way through life, and develops and deepens our capacity for awareness in the moment. Mindfulness helps us watch the mind without judging, or getting carried away with a story about how its thoughts are good or bad, inappropriate or anything other than simply thoughts arising and fading away. The essential insight—that thoughts and feelings come and go, and that we may have thoughts, but they do not have us—can spark a small revolution in anyone open to the teaching. Seeing each thought or feeling as what it is and temporary, mindfulness can help keep identification with our mental states at bay, contain an emotional drama, allow for self-compassion, and even help slow a careening locomotive.
Gratefulness incorporates and builds on mindfulness; once we have paused, it purposefully shifts our awareness into direct curiosity, focus, and action, and can help re-direct the mind’s attention toward something at those moments when a shift in attention – or change of tracks – is called for.
Grateful Living can help to re-train the neural pathways that looked for something wrong to now look for things that are going well, or at least to identify opportunities available to us.
Grateful Living practices do an extraordinary job of filling space where habits of mind such as awfulizing leave off; they move adeptly through the same neural pathways that negative thought patterns lay down in our minds and find their groove on the same tracks. By offering a replacement focus for our attention, Grateful Living can help to re-train the neural pathways that looked for something wrong to now look for things that are going well, or at least to identify opportunities available to us. Where we once may have sought to reinforce a sense of scarcity, we begin to more readily look for, and see, what is sufficient in our lives. A focus on unmet expectations can be replaced by a greater focus on lifting up appreciation. And when we are longing for more reasons to be happy, turning our attention to notice what we already have, and are grateful for, can truly be a turn-around.
The way I see it, I am built with the ability to know how to orient toward a positive train of thought precisely because of my experience with awfulizing. I clearly already have the established mental musculature for:
- allowing a thought or feeling to impact me deeply,
- directing my attention to notice everything that reinforces that thought,
- carrying the thought-pattern through to a powerful destination,
- getting good at a habit through repeated practice.
Given that our minds and feelings are capable of taking us on great adventures at a moment’s notice, hopping aboard a grateful train of thought may be a good way to keep ourselves focused and on track…
Trains of thought have significant impact, no matter which ones we ride. Knowing that we have the capacity to direct and re-direct our attention, and committing to practices which help us to remember and strengthen this capacity, is empowering. As I have become increasingly invested in reducing suffering in my life and in the world, I know that getting myself habituated to new ways of traveling is necessary.
Gratefulness as a “habit of mind,” and living gratefully as a way of being, awaken us to notice and nourish the things in life for which we are truly appreciative, but often take for granted. Given that our minds and feelings are capable of taking us on great adventures at a moment’s notice, hopping aboard a grateful train of thought may be a good way to keep ourselves focused and on track, and to actually end up where we had intended and hoped to be.
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Thank you for this. This comes at just the right moment for me, as things do when I go with gratitude. 🙏
One of my mentor’s used to say, “There’s nothing more real than a relationship.” I will add, “The most important relationship is the relationship you have with yourself. It will determine the quality and depth of the relationship you have with others.”
This is a powerful approach to becoming more positive. I love the train metaphor. At my age, I seem to get overwhelmed more easily. The pandemic and the divisions in our society have had such a negative impact on my life, language, and thoughts. I am anxious to change those neural pathways back to a more positive track. I just need to see how to do it as a step-by-step process instead of an overwhelming task. The negative things have a powerful magnetic field too. I get away from the negative news of the world but so easily get drawn back in again. I should add that my husband taught Political Science so it is hard to keep the news out of our house.
I also want to say thank you for this site and all the supportive and beautiful posts. The site and the people have been very helpful
“Where we once may have sought to reinforce a sense of scarcity, we begin to more readily look for, and see, what is sufficient and even abundant in our lives. ”
Kristi, this is such an important realization. We can change our feelings and outlook about our lives with this shift. The circumstances I am in may not change–what changes is my perception and attitude toward them. And once those change, my actions can’t help but change as well.
Beautiful post and insights, Kristi. It is so easy to not realize when your negative train is up and running and picking up steam. I have this phrase on a sticky note on my fridge—- ‘Trains of thought have significant impact, no matter which ones we ride. Knowing that we have the capacity to direct and re-direct our attention, and committing to practices which help us to remember and strengthen this capacity, is empowering’ Thank you for this gem.
Kristi – thank you so much for this lovely blog. I am teaching a women’s mindfulness retreat in two weeks and am planning on dedicating a section to mental habits. I love your bullets on the process of awfulizing and think I will share with my class to describe so elegantly what each of us goes through.
Several years ago I made a decision, on the day I got laid off from a hated job, that I would try my best to shift out of fear and negativity whenever it arises. I am dedicated to this and am grateful when I find expressions of this commitment in others. Thank you so much. This piece deepened my understanding and fierce dedication to this practice.
Hi Kristi – I read your deeply thoughtful blog after watching a live news flash on Hurricane Harvey. It helped me think about my own train of thought and how to reframe my reaction to this devastating, unstoppable force of nature as being a “given moment” as Br. David would say. I realize this is an opportunity for me to act in prayer, give a donation to the Red Cross, call my friends who live in Texas or do something of service, compassion, and love – however small. This is the stop/look/go in real life. Thank you for the gentle reminder to be mindful as a call to action. It’s so important not only to stop and put your thoughts in front of you in full view, but to take that heart-led action. With gratitude back at ya –
Dear Kristi, Thank you so much for this helpful post! Your words point to a simple, clear and affirming path. It feels like a big and challenging project to learn these practices. I appreciate your pairing mindfulness with compassion and gratefulness. Some of those mind trains need a whole lot of patience and kindness to change course. Sincere thanks for this and all that you and the gratefulness team share so generously!
I agree with the big and challenging project and I think it would need to be a class of many sessions for me. I need a guide to take me step by step.
Thanks for your comment KC – I am thrilled that you found value in my elucidation of gratefulness and you are so right that we need to be patient and kind with ourselves to change the course of our lives, All well wishes on your journey and many thanks for traveling with us!
Dear Kristi, as I wrote in Monday question of the day, your words came to me like a balm. Maybe it was the starting of my holidays, suddenly I felt empty from my busy day, I don’t know, but I woke up with a train of thoughts…. as soon as I read the title of your blog….it was like an awakening. I took a breathe. Later, when I read the blog, I confirmed my renewed awareness and I decided for journaling, as a way for training my soul. Thank you!
Blessing you Anna – for your kind praise and more so for your commitment to your own practice of self awareness. Thank you for being part of this community. Keep on…
I live in the dessert physical location. And I read this and am reminded of the dryness and rough terrain of my mental state, reading this is like a oasis. Thank you as I have begun my journey in mindfulness and compassion, gratefulness. Thank you.
Gargi – Thank you for going towards the oasis that awaits you. It is always available, even if sometimes it is an effort to turn ourselves around. It is worth it, and you are in great company, and a beautiful part of the human family and our community. Stay committed…
Thank you and all with Brother David at Gratefulness.org. A sanctuary online……..honestly on….line…..with the universe.
Thank you, dear Kristi, for sharing these insights of yours. They give hope that training the mind through gratefulness and meditation could be a way out of never-ending vicious circles of imprinted “negative” neuronal fixations that always lead to negative results only.
Especially that it is possible to become able to carry these well trained useful and grateful patterns of mind through to a powerful destination and so may be becoming supportive for the whole is really inspiring, and consoling. It inspires to again hop aboard where hope is about to slip away. Such a gift. Thank you so much!
Dear Ose – how lovely to hear your thoughts, and thank you for sharing them! I love that you can see this training as a way to help “serve the whole” for indeed, we are more available to love when we are headed in a direction that sees the good and can respond to the opportunities that present themselves to us. This is something very hard to do when we are on that negative train…With appreciation for your consistent presence…