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How Learning to Monitor My Thoughts Sparked a Spiritual Awakening

When I think about the my healing journey from severe childhood trauma, the things that happened inside of my brain over the last six years that fundamentally began to not only rewire my brain but change my perception of who I am (or perhaps it was simply a breaking down of the old me and recreation of the new me), it all comes down to thoughts. Emotions as well as thoughts, of course, but thoughts are ultimately the precursor to both the emotions that can get triggered by them (and generate energy about them – positive or negative), and the beliefs that can be supported, challenged or created from them.

The energy of my thoughts has certainly shifted throughout this process. In my unhealed years, almost all my thinking was negative. I churned constantly in the constant chaos of negative energy that was my constant present. At night I ruminated anxiously over the terrible things coming at me in the future that I felt powerless to stop. And if I was still, for even a second, my brain would shift to all the pain, abandonment, betrayal, rejection and suffering that was strewn behind me. When I wasn’t busily distracting myself with endless productivity related to work, the farm or the rescue, I literally inhaled and exhaled a sea of negative thoughts that fed negative emotions that ultimately created an echo chamber of pain overwhelming me. Even now, writing about it, I feel its powerful, toxic energy wash over me all over again.

In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which I did during my “I have borderline personality disorder (BPD) and all I’m embracing all of the stigma and negativity about this label/diagnosis” phase of my healing, I learned about becoming a passive observer of my thoughts and emotions, even as I was in the midst of a meltdown. So even while the part of me that was in control of my actions was spiraling out of control, another part of me just sat back and observed. Then, when I calmed down, it was much, much easier to do what is called “chain analysis” post-meltdown.

Chain analysis is simply identifying the trigger, underlying causes, emotions and resulting actions of a “problem behavior.” Once I learned to monitor my own thoughts, it was easy to quickly identify the trigger. Often it was just a harmless comment that, the way I heard it, triggered some deeply painful place inside of me. And so, from a PTSD-activated state stemming from a hurt long, long buried in my childhood, I would lash out in a fury or rage, or flee in a blind panic, or need to hide myself in a dark and silent closet. These reactions do not have anything to do with the thought process at all, in fact they are completely removed from it. The emotional flashbacks that are triggered in this state come from a place of “emotion mind,” and there is no cognitive function in emotion mind. It’s all primal, lizard-brain, survival-focused. Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn. These are the options.

But back to thoughts… once I began to get competent as a passive observer of my thoughts, I realized I was needing to do less and less chain analysis of problematic behaviors because I was beginning to learn to catch my emotional reactions to my triggers before they happened, or stop my problematic behaviors from happening by intervening (usually, removing myself from the situation until I calmed down). And as I began to spend more and more time in an emotionally regulated state, I began to get curious about my thoughts that happened throughout the day. I noticed patterns — when my thoughts took a turn for the negative (during my period, for example….or just a depressive mood coming on). I learned strategies to identify problematic thinking and deflect it (something that is not at all easy despite society’s insistence that positive thinking is the simple solution to any negative situation or feeling).

Eventually, I began to be able to ward off a negative thought before it triggered an emotional response. This is like mental gymnastics — it involves being able to identify the energy of the thought before you have a chance to recognize the content of the thought and emotionally respond to it. Not easy stuff! But early on I visualized it as sort of a gate or checkpoint that the thought had to pass through before it reached my conscious awareness. Sort of like a “thought filter.” And with this, I gained a great amount of control over my mental and emotional state.

In Glennon Doyle’s “Untamed,” in her chapter “Imagine,” she talks about the power of imagination. She challenged her readers to live from their imagination, to imagine “the truest, most beautiful life” for ourselves.

She says, “Perhaps imagination is not where we go to escape reality but where we go to remember it.”

“Imagination is how personal and worldwide revolutions began.”

“’Dreaming, is a way of planning,’ said Gloria Steinem.”

Glennon speaks of reason for being, a purpose, that exists inside of all of us, and there are directions on where to find it if one only looks within for guidance. I realized as I read this chapter on imagination that it, too, had been a huge part of my thought activity, and it is a happy place I spent a lot of time in. As a child, I had a vivid, robust imagination. Left almost entirely alone most of my childhood and a lost, unattached child since toddlerhood, I was given freedom to indulge all my curiosities. I found many creative ways to entertain myself and a lot of that was just within my own head. Dissociative, yes. But helpful. Comforting.

Imagination also was an active part of what kept me going on through those pre-healed decades. As long as I could have one thing to look forward to — a vacation, a horse show or event — I could fix my brain on an endless loop of imagined future happiness. And in these moments, there was blissful relief.

As I moved through the healing process, I noticed my thoughts would point me to the unhealed parts of me that were now ready to be processed. Triggers became my guides to find the wounds. My partner and I watched dark TV shows and movies; dramatic scenes and even benign family scenes would often trigger a long-forgotten or suppressed memory to rise to the surface. I would allow myself to remember, to feel the feelings of the memory, to understand its impact on me and set it free.

But as I healed I continued to get curious about my thoughts and their origins. I read a bit about Eckhart Tolle and the Power of Now after his videos came up in response to my Google search for “where do your thoughts come from?” I learned about the power of living in the present, recognizing how much being dragged down by my past and terrified of the future still (even now) holds on to me in a fierce grip. My emotional state is calm most days now, and my stressors largely minimized (except the ongoing stressors associated with the pandemic, Trumpism, and family issues).

I began to notice and categorize my thoughts. I wondered which ones were really what made me, me? The real, authentic me, separate from all the traumatic experiences that had altered my thinking? The real me was certainly not reflected in my thoughts that are rooted in my trauma, not the things I repetitively ruminated or worried about. Not the thoughts that were necessary to manage my day-to-day real life. These were the thoughts that go on behind the scenes — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not. Like the ones that feel uniquely like our own authentic selves — our inspiration, our creativity, passions. The thoughts that drive and are expressed in our dreams.

And then there is even another class of thoughts. The “aha” moments of sudden new awareness, perception, way of seeing things. The moment where a spark, a burst of energy is created, a new synopsis is made, and it is the beginning of an awakening, a shifting, a change. Where, I thought, where do these thoughts come from? For every step of one’s personal journey of healing requires these bursts of insight. Epiphanies. Yes, that’s the word. Epiphanies.

Eckhardt Tolle believes that these thoughts come from the collective consciousness, the universal life-force, part of the vast network of all consciousness. In Buddhism, it is simply the wisdom you will find when you spend time in meditation, looking deeply within. In Glennon Doyle’s book, “Untamed,” she referred to these moments as gentle nudges from her “Knowing.” But in her case, her Knowing is God himself. Or rather, herself, as God is simply inside her, part of her.

As for me, I’m still working on figuring out what it is. I remain curious and skeptical, all the same. So much of religion and spirituality has been consumed by marketing and exploitation of people’s human emotional states by narcissist vampires in the world who are driven by ego, not divinity. I have seen religion used as only a means to control, exploit and abuse people and gaslight those who speak out. In my own family, religion has been used as cover for horrific abuse. I never had a slightest bit of interest in religion growing up, but now, I understand the personal call to spirituality. I read a lot about all kinds of spirituality, but I rely heavily on my intuition and personal experience to guide me.

The only thing I know for sure is the moment I felt sure that I was not only no longer being weighed down by a negative energy constantly drowning me and pulling me under, and instead I was beginning to rise towards the surface, my life has gotten better. I’m still on the edge of the raging river, but I’m standing on dry ground. And I’m so very grateful for that. What got me here? Lots of hard work, for sure. But also, those epiphanies. Those shifts. Whatever they were, wherever they came from, however they suddenly jumped onto a train of thought and came into my awareness, I am grateful to them, and aware that there is a benevolence behind them, and positive, loving energy that wants to help, not hurt me.

Those tiny shifts in my perception that over time led to the gradual expansion of my consciousness to one that includes humanity and nature all as equals, all conscious, feeling souls. So many who are broken, damaged and unconsciously repeating the same abusive patterns over and over from generation to generation. Suddenly, you can feel empathy for them too. Whatever causes this shift in awareness, it feels like Love to me. Learning to self-love, and perhaps some divinity as well.

Getty image by LUMEZIA