Try it. I want you to think of elephants and count backwards from one hundred by sevens. Let’s go… picture a herd of browsing elephants; now count backwards “one hundred, ninety-three, eighty-six…” Keep going…Forgot about the elephants, didn’t you? It’s hard to think about two things at once.

So if obsessive thoughts about sex or crack cocaine keep appearing, try counting backwards, balancing your checkbook, or memorizing a poem. Or repeat a mantra.

So why repeat a mantra? Why say something over and over?

Again & Again, Over & Over, Repeat
It helps our mind focus on a single thought. Mantras are repeated again and again. Thoughts that occur frequently become wrapped in myelin. Myelin is what the brain uses wrap neural pathways in so that we can do things more easily and quickly. The things we do or think of frequently get wrapped in extra myelin. Adding myelin is like increasing bandwidth so a thought can come up faster and stronger in the future. Lots of myelin provides a superhighway for common thoughts. This is great for remembering your loved ones, but it is all too easy to have thoughts come up about sex or drugs.

What To Do
If you walk an elephant through an open market their trunk will be reaching for mangoes and bananas. Unless you give them a stick to carry with their trunk. When their trunk is busy holding the stick they stop reaching for goodies. They say the mind is like the restless trunk of an elephant—always reaching for something. Giving your mind a mantra to repeat is like giving an elephant a stick to carry. No more restless searching. A mantra gives our minds something safe or positive to think about.

So if we can’t we can’t get rid of the myelin superhighways we have built around our drug of choice or favorite way to act out, what can we do? Is a mantra going to be enough to ward off obsessive thoughts and cravings?

Probably not. Are we condemned to be tormented by unwanted thoughts? Must elephants wander wherever they want? Are we doomed to acting out compulsively? Must we allow elephants to go on a rampage? Fortunately not. There are many ways to work with your brain and your sanskaras. We can manage the elephants! Here are four ways.

You Are Not Your Thoughts
A very powerful step toward managing obsessive thoughts it to begin simply watching them without reacting. It is possible to neutrally observe what you are thinking about. As you begin to notice your addiction-related thoughts, “Oh, I am thinking about a glass of scotch. Dewar’s on the rocks,” ask yourself what prompted the thought and listen to the answer. For instance, “It is getting toward the end of my work day and I want to relax with a cocktail.”

Who’s Watching?
Noticing your thoughts helps you to realize that you are the Observer, not the observed. You can watch yourself think about elephants without becoming an elephant. You can watch yourself want a glass of whiskey and be separate from both the whiskey and the wanting. This is an important degree of separation from thoughts and cravings.

A Better Way of Coping
Observing our thoughts and desires allows us to disidentify with what we are thinking and wanting. It also allows us to find another way to meet our needs. One definition of addiction is that it is simply mal-adaptive coping. When we can observe our wants we can find other ways to cope with stress, other ways to meet our needs. We can then ask, “What would be a better way for me to relax than to drink scotch? Maybe I could take a walk…”

Once you become an observer of thoughts and feelings you will notice that they come and go on their own. Even intense thoughts or feelings will fade or diminish if you simply watch them.

Not Just No, Hell no!
What if you don’t want to watch your thoughts? Is that the only way? Nope. Another way of managing thoughts is to refute or challenge them. This serves to a) interrupt them, and b) offer another perspective. For instance, if I find myself wanting to smoke a cigarette, I might imagine an overflowing ashtray, stained teeth, a cigarette put out in a plate of food, a cigarette butt floating in a beer bottle. Come up with as many disgusting thoughts as needed until the desire goes away.

All The Way Through
Or I can think the whole scenario through to the end, “If I smoke one, I will want another. And other. Then my clothes will stink. And my hair and my breath. My spouse will know I am smoking again. I’ll end up buying a pack. Two packs. I will have to tell my friends. My lungs will hate me. My child will be disgusted…”

New Superhighways
The third way of managing thoughts relates again to myelin production in our brain. We can’t get rid of the neural pathways we already have but we can build new ones. If we have been addicted to anything we have built myelinated superhighways leading directly to our drug of choice. Our brains light up at the thought of booze, sex, crack cocaine. We need competing pathways. We need to distract our minds by directing them to something else If we do something often enough we will have made a new neural superhighway.

If You Build It… 
To make competing myelin and healthy new superhighways for your thoughts to go down, take up a hobby. No, I’m not kidding.  Try chess, or fly fishing, or black and white photography, or the flute. It doesn’t matter what you pick so long as it has a chance of keeping your attention. So pick something promising. Something cool, rad, or interesting. Practice everyday. Think about when you aren’t actively practicing. You’ll be building myelin with every thought and action. It’s okay if you become obsessed about it. It is way better to be obsessed with your hobby than to be obsessed about sex or drugs.

The fourth way of becoming free of repetitive thoughts is to stop creating new sanskaras. Sanskaras are impressions that are collected in our subconscious mind. We form impressions of everything we have ever done, thought, felt, or said. Sanskaras of a similar type clump together in our subconscious and are the basis for the thoughts that come up and form urges. People who have addictions have formed many, many sanskaric clumps around something that harms them.

Sanskaras are responsible for those thoughts that seem to come out of now where.  Thoughts create more thought sanskaras, feelings create more feeling sanskaras, and physical acts create more physical sanskaras. Mental sanskaras bring forth thoughts of wanting, “I think I’ll have a drink.” Feeling sanskaras bring forth feelings about wanting, “I need a smoke, damn it.”  Physical sanskaras make you want to go do it, “Let’s go buy some pot.” When we try to change our habits it is as if all the sanskaras get stirred up and come to consciousness in thought after thought, image after image, urge after urge to do the very thing we are trying to avoid. But the sanskaras will wear out if you don’t act on them.

Not acting on them means not picking up the drink, the cigarette, the joint, or the crack pipe. If you don’t act on your thoughts, you won’t create new sanskaras, and old ones will slowly wear out. When your thoughts are not rewarded they eventually go away. The elephants move on if you don’t feed them.

Bottom line: we don’t have to let obsessive thoughts take over or lead us to do things that make us unhappy. We can distract or interrupt our thoughts. We can become observers and watch thoughts and feelings come and go as if we were watching ships come in and leave a harbor. We can find better ways to meet our legitimate needs—ways that don’t cause us harm. We can build new and healthy interests that become new superhighways for our attention. And finally, we can wear out our sanskaras by not acting upon them.

None of us need to feel bullied by thoughts that charge in like rogue elephants. We can recognize that these are only thoughts, only feelings and if we do nothing to encourage them they will go away. Yes, thoughts of using may come up, but now we have choice in how we react or respond. We can think and choose our way to a better life.

Copyright 2011 Crossroads Recovery Coaching, Inc.

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