To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.
Earlier in this series, I discussed the addictive, damaging nature of persistent negative thoughts and wrote that when we feel our thoughts are out of control, we shouldn’t be afraid to look beyond ourselves for help. What comes next—the third step in a 12-step recovery program—is the decision to actually do so.
Sometimes the third step is described much more succinctly as “Pray.” Although there are other ways to look beyond oneself for guidance and nurturing, many people find traditional prayers helpful because they provide the structure of a familiar, reassuring ritual. Words remembered from childhood come easily to mind and give us comfort, without need for all the mental effort that would be required to construct an entirely new ritual from scratch.
Ritual is important because when we remove anything from our lives, it needs to be replaced in a structured way by something else to fill the space. Otherwise, whether we’re talking about addictive behaviors or anything else we don’t want, it soon finds its way back into its usual spot because the power of habit is so strong. So, if we’re to succeed in removing negative thought loops from our minds, we need to put regular and comfortable patterns of positive thinking into the space they once occupied.
As mentioned, there are many ways of going about it—prayer, a gratitude journal, reading inspirational material, centering oneself through mindfulness and meditation, spending more time outdoors connecting with nature, and so forth. What’s important is that the new positive activities be done regularly, so that they can train the mind into better habits. Behavior and thought always are interrelated. When we do something regularly, it feels normal and expected; and whatever thoughts occupy our minds most of the day are the ones on which we’re most likely to act.
At first it seems awkward to fit different activities—whatever they may be—into our daily routines. We worry that there won’t be enough time or that it will feel like drudgery. We’re afraid of how other people will react—will they think we’ve joined a cult or gone loopy in woo-woo land if they notice us praying or meditating regularly? It seems so much harder than just keeping on with the same old stuff we’ve done before. And if it’s hard, then maybe it’s not working. Maybe we should just give it up before we totally fail and things get even worse.
After some time passes, though, we find that the new habits build on and reinforce each other. It feels more natural to start the day by counting our blessings, rather than by grumbling about the weather or some little inconvenience. Even in moments when we’re not consciously trying to shape our thoughts, we just happen to discover a few rays of peace and serenity breaking through the gloom anyway. The world starts to feel like a place where we really can expect to find love, care, and guidance when we need them. Of course, the journey is still in its early stages; but far below the surface of our awareness, real, substantial changes are happening.