Beyond CBT: The Power of Not Thinking at All
As well as learning to think positively, we need to stop thinking.
Posted Jul 01, 2014
I’ve always been enthusiastic about Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Its great insight is that it’s not so much the events of our lives which make us unhappy or happy, but the way we think about them. To quote Shakespeare’s phrase in Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." The premise of CBT is that our thoughts determine our moods and feelings. Negative thoughts create negative moods; positive thoughts create positive moods. When any event happens to us, our cognitive biases and attitudes often determine whether we view it in a positive or a negative light.
I know from my own experience that there is a great deal of truth to this. I suffered from depression myself when I was in my later teens and early 20s, and it was certainly related to – although not wholly caused by – my habits of negative thinking. I had a "downer" on myself, thought of myself as an inadequate, "weird" person who would never be able to find a place in the world or find happiness. But now I’m a very cheerful and positive person, partly because I have changed the way I think about myself and my life.
However, I also there is a limit to the effectiveness of CBT. I partly agree with the counsellors and psychotherapists who argue that CBT is only a "surface therapy", which leaves more deeply rooted psychological problems untouched. But my main complaint is that too much emphasis is put on the importance of "positive thinking." There is another mental state which has a more pronounced effect on well-being: not thinking at all.
Changing the way we think is a major step toward well-being, but an even greater step is to go beyond thought altogether. When there is no thought in our minds at all – or at least significantly less than normal – we feel a deep sense of well-being, a positive mood that isn’t triggered by thoughts, but which seems to arise from a source of natural well-being inside us.
This is the quality we aim to touch into in meditation. In "focused" meditation (as opposed to "mindful" types of meditation, where the aim is to observe experience in a detached way) the aim is to slow down and reduce cognitive activity. We might use an object of concentration such as a mantra or our own breathing to focus the attention away from our "thought-chatter", so that it begins to quieten. If the meditation is successful, we might experience a few moments – or even a few minutes or longer – of complete mental emptiness and quietness. You could call this "content-less consciousness" – that is, we are fully conscious, but our minds our empty of thought.
This state of "no-thought" is extremely therapeutic, with temporary and long term benefits, many of which are cognitive. In the short term (say, for the next few hours following a period of no-thought), the sense of well-being means that you’re less vulnerable to stress and anxiety. Negative thoughts are less likely to occur, and if they do rise up, you feel less identified with and less affected by them.
In fact, this is one of the main long term effects of regular periods of no-thought: a distance develops between you and your thoughts. If negative thoughts do pop up, you’re more likely just to watch them pass by without identifying with them, as if you’re sitting on a river bank watching a river flow by.
No-thought also seems to have the long- term of changing the "atmosphere" of our minds. The atmosphere becomes more positive, less tinged with anxiety, so that negative thoughts are less likely to be generated. Also in the long term, the momentum of your thought-chatter reduces. Your mind becomes gradually less busy and noisy, so that eventually a natural quality of well-being is always present.
I never had any CBT myself. The main reason why I overcame my negative thinking styles and began to develop a more positive and integrated state of mind was because I began to meditate regularly – at least once a day, and sometimes twice – and slowly began to experience the therapeutic effects of no-thought.
I would suggest, then, that CBT is not enough. In addition to cognitive therapy, we need a "trans-cognitive therapy." As well as learning to think positively, we need to learn to stop thinking. Techniques of "quietening the mind" such as meditation and mindfulness should not just be seen as spiritual practices but as powerful therapies too, and be recommended by psychologists and psychiatrists as readily as CBT.