Ofosu used to beat himself up for having frequent intrusive thoughts, especially during meditation. He and Leah discuss tools they've learned to treat themselves with kindness when these types of thoughts arise — and how meditation can help.
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OFOSU: Hi, I'm Ofosu Jones-Quartey.
LEAH: And I'm Leah Santa Cruz. We're the meditation coaches on the Balance app.
OFOSU: And this is our weekly show -- Well Balanced.
LEAH: So this week we're going to continue our celebration of Mental Health Awareness month. And we're talking about something that we get asked a lot about as meditation coaches.
It's called intrusive thoughts. Ever heard of them? Ever felt them? And so we're going to talk about what to do about them when they cause you some distress.
OFOSU: I literally have so much to say about this topic. And so I am really excited that we're talking about this before we get into how to handle intrusive thoughts and our own stories with them.
I feel like we should make sure that we are on the same page for the definition of what an intrusive thought is. So. In my personal experience and then additional research, I believe that an intrusive thought is any uninvited thought, any unwanted thought. I think people tend to view intrusive thoughts as those negative, extreme, intense, terrible thoughts, bogeyman violence, hot thoughts.
But to me, they can also be that like Wu Tang song you can't get out of your head for days or any of those Disney songs you can't get out of there.
LEAH: Yeah. Yeah. And I, I kind of think of intrusive thoughts as like any thoughts that are really blaming or shaming or like finding fault in yourself or that are unloving. Yeah. I think we all have them. I've had them certainly at times. And I used to have them more frequently than now.
OFOSU: Yeah, absolutely. I think when we're talking about intrusive thoughts, they can exist really on a scale for people, um, where some people experience unwanted thoughts and they arise and they pass and they don't really bother them.
And maybe they're not really that frequent. And then you have other folks who have much more frequent, much more intense, um, thoughts that they feel like are problematic. There's a lot of research that's been done on this and people have sought help for this. I've sought help for this. Yeah.
LEAH: I think where the, I mean, what's said is that when it becomes really distressing is when we, we make it our point to try to neutralize the thoughts or we feel like we need to stop them.
And that's just been proven over and over again, through people's experiences as well as you know, in research studies that it just doesn't work. Trying to suppress thoughts, any thoughts? It just doesn't work when you try to suppress them, especially the intrusive ones.
OFOSU: Yeah. And it's so counterintuitive because these are thoughts that you don't want talking more about the problematic ones that to say, let them be, let them arise and pass, and that will reduce their frequency and reduce their potency is so counterintuitive to people who experienced them in intense ways, such as myself.
LEAH: I think this could be one of the biggest challenges as humans that we face. How do I allow something that I don't want to be here? Like how can I find acceptance with it to the degree that I still don't like it, but I'm aware that I'm not going to let it fool me.
Like, I'm aware that it's just a repeating pattern. It's just a thought on a loop. It's not that it's true. Or that it's something that I have to believe. I can just witness it.
OFOSU: Yes. This has been such a journey and it is really the impetus for why I've stayed on the meditation path. As long as I have. I know the underlying issues for why my intrusive thoughts started to arise.
Predate my meditation practice, but it wasn't until I started meditating in earnest that I, um, noticed that I was having really unpleasant, anxious thoughts. And I started my meditation journey as a new father, newly moved out into the world, way more anxiety than I was giving myself credit for experiencing.
And I was having basically like many nightmares when I was meditating of harmful things happening to my kids, to me, to everyone that I love. And I became really obsessed with preventing them from arising as do most people. Yeah. And honestly, many of my meditations in those first years eventually just became suppression sessions.
[LEAH: Oh, yeah.] And I kind of like injured myself, uh, psychologically in doing that for so long. The mission that I'm on to encourage people to be kind to themselves was born in a cauldron of me trying to suppress my intrusive thoughts and judging myself catastrophically. Whenever one slipped out, I mean, they would all slip out.
LEAH: That's a vicious cycle and then they just show up in your dreams when you suppress them in your daytime life. I think that's what's important to remember. And you made a good point, like they were showing up in your meditation. It's important for people to know that the thoughts don't just pop up during your meditation, they're already present in the background, but you're busy and keeping yourself busy throughout the day.
So as you become quiet in your meditation, it's so much easier to notice them. The hardest thing to teach in meditation - the biggest thing that I'm teaching people is techniques for dealing with unwanted thoughts. And it's simple. Might not be easy, but it's simple. You just listen. You witnessed them, you feel them, but you don't let the voices fool you.
You are just aware that they're habitual tape loops that your brain's playing. I know that you spoke before about how you really started your meditation journey. Um, in very traditional ways, you know, a lot of that traditional meditation literature, it's like, it can be really full of perfectionism.
Like you need to sit perfectly straight, don’t fall asleep. Don't let your mind wander. You need to never get angry, you know, be devoted to your guru and always be compassionate.
OFOSU: That part of it. I so appreciate you bringing that up because it was holding myself to this standard of monastic perfection that exacerbated what I was going through to such a high level.
Created so much shame so much. I was a bad meditator, a bad person, just bad, bad, bad, bad, just bad everything. And then I would report what I was going through to my teacher who was a Buddhist monk, who was also in the monastic tradition - I was also coming to him, not even wanting to stain his golden ears with the dirt of my unpleasant thoughts.
LEAH: Oh. So then there was shame around yeah. Like even getting help for it. Yes, exactly. That's an interesting perspective because your teacher was a monk and these kinds of values of, of that more sort of perfectionist outlook on meditation. Makes sense. When you think about it in the direction of what a monk is going, it took vows of celibacy.
It took vows of poverty. They're never going to work. They don't, they're trying to let go of ambition of everything. And so it makes sense that they would have that kind of like rigid devotion and like those practices really. Uh, behoove them towards the living, the lifestyle that they need, but they don't make sense for most of the people living in this everyday society, because we have so many things that cause us stress throughout the days that like that such is going to build up because it's requiring a little bit of our attention to say, hey, there's something off here.
There's something that needs your attention. There's something that I'm worried about or, you know, unless we're choosing to let go of everything, you can expect that we're going to have stressful thoughts.
OFOSU: My teacher, Jay, used to say, if you're going to walk in the mud, then you're definitely going to get shit on your boots.
LEAH: Oh yeah! That's a good one.
OFOSU: And he was a former monk who became a lay person and saw me going for this standard of perfection. And he kept saying that, and it was like, this is ironically the Zen koan that I didn't really understand. Like, what are you saying, Jay? Like, dude, what do you mean? He's basically like stop being so hard on yourself and actually meeting you, Leah, was also pivotal in changing my approach to how I was. I had already been on self-kindness, but definitely was still holding myself secretly to like this unreasonable standard. And when I got to know about you and your practice and this almost like asking people not to take this perfectionist approach.
Like we don't live that way, just like what you were saying. And it really, it really had a profound impact on me. I never told you that.
LEAH: Well, that's great to hear. I feel honored. And it's just a really simple tweak. It's like, just like you said, be tender with yourself. Like that's a way to replace the perfectionism and just treat yourself like you would your dearest friend or forgive yourself, respect yourself.
Honor your own uniqueness.
OFOSU: Obviously I sound passionate about this, cause it's been such a huge part of my life. And what has helped me is all of those things that you're saying. When I felt kind of my back was against the wall because it was this terrible loop of being afraid of a bad thought arising, and then having one arise and being, feeling shame about it - and, you know, and then meditation being like the battleground where all of that would take place. Eventually I found that saying, I love you to myself, bringing in the wanted thoughts of kindness and care helped me to recognize that these thoughts, like, just like you were saying, they're not telling the truth.umber one. We don't have to believe them. And, um, that's something that everybody goes through.
LEAH: Yeah. I can just recognize, like, there's something here that needs, uh, that needs tenderness. There's some part of me that that needs to be held and, and reminded of its worthiness. And another antidote that I learned is, just bringing your attention towards something that brings you pleasure, something simple, like feeling the sun on your skin, or feeling a softness of a blanket that you love or pet that's next to you, or just an item that you like looking at, um, and just bathing in something that's positive. And that brings you a sense of love.
Joy is actually a really good way to divert the attention to, without trying to make the thoughts stop of course.
OFOSU: Yeah. I feel like why it was tough for me was that like, I judged myself feeling like, oh man, I should have this under control. If anybody out there that's experiencing difficulty around intrusive thoughts [needs] I think, number one, this sentence that shared experience is the absence of shame that we all as human beings are just trying to make sense and process the world around us. But all of this stuff are just simple mental events that you don't have to identify with. And if they are debilitating, please know that there are trained professionals to help you in that process.
LEAH: Yeah, absolutely. Meditation is a huge help. And, and it's even been proven that the longer you meditate in your life, the greater the positive effect is towards intrusive thoughts. Like maybe reducing the frequency of them or, or especially just the stress that you feel from them.
OFOSU: Definitely has been the case with me so I can attest to it. But it's actually cool to be able to talk about this and say that it's not that I'm on the other side of, yeah. The frequency of them is definitely down. And just the way that I relate to them is also completely transformed. And when they arise, then I use them. I flip them whenever a negative or intrusive thought arises, then I'll just say a positive thought deliberately.
So they strengthen my positive thought muscle. Now I make them work for me. Yeah. Yeah.
LEAH: You know, I think what I'm going away from this conversation with is that it's important that we all recognize that everybody has these intrusive thoughts to some varying degree. And it's, if you're living in the world, you get your feet wet or muddy, right.
You're going to get dirty. You're going to get those thoughts because it's a part of the stress release process of all the things that we have to deal with in our lives and all the concerns that we have. So I think just recognizing that, I'm not alone here. This is pervasive throughout society. Knowing everyone has this can help us reduce that stigma around sharing it with others.
Just like you were afraid to share it with your teacher who is a monk, because, you know, you felt like you needed to live up to some higher degree of standards. And I think we all get afraid of sharing our inner journey with other people, because we're afraid that we’ll look bad. But what we realized is like, oh my gosh, everybody else has this.
And like sharing it as actually a way of healing. [OFOSU: Yes.] And not trying so hard to be ashamed of ourselves for having them and trying to eliminate them, which makes the matters worse. So that's what I'm taking away. Just a feeling of like, hey, we've all got it. Let's talk about it.
OFOSU: Shared experience is the absence of shame.
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OFOSU: Hopefully, this has been helpful to anybody that needed to hear a little bit about this and hey everybody, thanks so much for joining us.
LEAH: And if you want to stay up to date with our next show subscribe, or you can follow us on your favorite podcast app, because we're going to be back next Monday with our next episode in Mental Health Awareness month and until then have a great day.
OFOSU: All right. Yeah. Don't forget to be kind to yourself. Y'all take care.
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