3 Mindful Ways to Stop Toxic Thoughts

We’ve all had those days, haven’t we? Something bad happens, someone says something insensitive, and suddenly our good mood is gone. Someone offends us and we feel threatened, angry and resentful. It isn’t long before the toxic thoughts (“what a jerk!”) turn into toxic, body-felt emotions: headache, heartburn, tight shoulders and stomach, nausea and even lethargy. If it’s particularly toxic, we can’t even sleep well at night.

How can you stop those toxic thoughts that are ruining your day? First and foremost, it’s important to take some time and change your environment. Take a “mental health” break from your routine and get out in nature for some exercise. Go on a trail where you feel at home and welcomed by the landscape. Studies like the one from the UK’s Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry have shown that exercise outdoors is better for your mental wellbeing than exercising, say, indoors at the gym.

In addition to the healthful exercise you’re getting hiking in nature, you can also try the following three different techniques to stop toxic thoughts and therefore reduce the negative emotional effect they have on your mind and body. I’ve tried all three of these consistently and found that they’re more effective than anything else—even talking with a friend—in improving my mood. Here they are:

Technique #1: Try a “Purging” Style of Meditation
This is the meditation activity I describe in my book, “Contemplative Hiking,” for the Spring Equinox energy cleansing ritual in nature. It involves meditating and breathing deeply from the belly, and imagining the toxic, black cloud of negative emotions and thoughts being pulled up from your core to your lungs and exhaled through the breath. With each cleansing breath, see your exhalation as first black, then progressing to a gray smoke and eventually coming out completely clear. You are imagining, as you meditate and breathe, that you are inhaling clean, fresh, healing breath and exhaling the negativity, anger, sadness, resentment and despair out into the atmosphere, where the trees and grasses will absorb it and transform it into clean air again.

Do this as long as you feel tense and raw. You will soon start to feel more relaxed and “detoxified.”

Technique #2: Perform EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) on Yourself

EFT is a form of alternative psychotherapy developed by Gary Craig that uses acupressure (meridian) points on the body while focusing on a specific limiting belief, thought, or bad memory. Whether this technique is actually effective because it’s creating a mind/body connection, it’s a placebo or because it distracts you from your negative thoughts, it doesn’t matter if the end result is that you FEEL better after you do it.

I’ve tried this technique at various times and have sensed a lessening of toxic thoughts and emotions as a result. It’s particularly effective to do it while sitting on a rock under a tree, in nature, where it’s quiet and private.

Here’s a video demonstrating how to do EFT:

For toxic thoughts, you might say something like this to yourself: “Even though I feel angry and distracted right now because ______, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

“Even though that person makes me feel ______, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

You repeat this as often as it takes for you to feel more relaxed and de-toxified from the negative thoughts and emotions.

Technique #3: Turn Resentment Into Gratitude

One of the secrets of “The Secret” and attracting abundance to our life is the idea that we should feel gratitude every single day for everything that we have and are experiencing, whether it’s something that we perceive as being “good” or “bad.” The very act of turning a negative event on its head and seeing it as a positive actually lessens the stress caused by the event.

For example, say that you wrecked your car and now you have to take an entire day off of work to deal with the insurance company and take your car to the body shop. You are having toxic thoughts about the situation. You’re angry at the person who hit you. You’re pissed about the $500 deductible you’re going to have to pay to fix your car. You’re even more annoyed at the day you have to take off from work.

How can this event be turned into gratitude and turned on its head? It’s not as difficult as you may think.

You can say to yourself that you’re grateful that you even HAVE a car. You’re grateful that you have a great job that you enjoy so much that you don’t like being away from it. You’re grateful to be employed during a recession. You’re grateful that you’re healthy and unharmed from the accident. You’re grateful that your partner or child weren’t in the car at the time of the accident. You’re grateful to have insurance and that there are talented and hard-working people who can fix your car to look even better than it did before the accident. You’re grateful for the opportunity to stop, take stock, and appreciate your life and health.

With each statement of gratitude, you’ll realize that perhaps the bad thing that happened to you isn’t all that bad. Maybe it’s just a friendly reminder of how GOOD you actually have it. Is that possible? Play around with these questions and see for yourself.

Taking time to apply one or all of these three techniques when you’re feeling stressed, depressed or angry can do wonders for your physical and mental wellbeing, especially when combined with time alone in nature.

Cultivating Inner Knowing On an Unfamiliar Trail

Date of hike: 2-13-10

Location: Golden Gate State Park, Golden, CO

Racoon Trail (loop) at Panorama Point

Distance: 2.5 mile loop

90 minute hike

Directions: From Boulder or Golden Take Hwy. 93 to CO 72 (West)

Turn left at Twin Spruce Road

Proceed past the entrance sign for Golden Gate State Park

Park in the Panorama Point parking lot

Look for the Racoon Trail signposts

Panorama Point
The view from Panorama Point, Golden Gate State Park

The Raccoon Trail

The Raccoon Trail in Golden Gate State Park is an easy to moderate hike along varied terrain. You descend down into trees from the parking lot at Panorama Point, and enjoy distant views of the Divide through the gaps here and there. Once you reach the bottom of the hill, the aspens get fatter and you can look up too view the two big rock outcroppings above the trees to the east.

The trail winds through stands of aspens, ponderosa pine, some other evergreens, and eventually, large gray boulders on the west side. Today there were some patches of undisturbed semi-packed snow, crusty, icy patches and even some short distances of gravel, decent conditions for snowshoes or YakTrak. There’s an equal amount of ascending and descending as you make the loop.

On this day the cold front was moving in and the clouds were booking it — when you stood still and looked up it was almost disorienting to see them race so fast across the sky. Cold air and unformed clouds of snow clung to the Divide. The wind was temperamental, blowing in quick bursts here and there but never sustaining the kind of velocity that would have made the hike unbearably cold and harsh. When we arrived at Panorama Point at 10:15 a.m. ours was the only vehicle in the lot and we encountered no other hikers on the trail itself until we were almost back at the lot an hour and a half later.

I briefly stated my intention and crossed an imaginary threshold just a few feet out of the parking lot. I was in sacred space and time and everything from now on would be a waking dream. Thoughts, feelings and signs from nature would be my guide for the hike.

Cultivating Inner Knowing

The intention of this hike to was to cultivate inner knowing, intuition, or what some call inherent wisdom.

If you’d like to do this activity yourself, I recommend going to a trail that you’re somewhat unfamiliar with. You want to experience the feeling of uncertainty and Beginner’s Mind in this activity, so not knowing what to expect at each moment is helpful.

Before you start the hike, ask yourself a question that’s been pressing on your mind, something that you don’t know the answer to, but you have some idea of the possibilities. Perhaps there are financial difficulties that you’ve been worried about or sensing. Maybe you have a health problem that’s developing but you haven’t acknowledged it. Maybe your romantic relationship is troubled, and you sense something is wrong, but you aren’t sure what that problem is or what will unfold.

This is also a good activity to do when you’re feeling eco-anxiety—how will the future unfold with all the challenges we’re facing with resource depletion, economic instability and widespread pollution? It’s important that you’re prepared for what’s ahead, and cultivating inner wisdom and emotional resilience is as important as preparing physically (paying down debt, growing a garden, reskilling).

In our daily, busy lives we have so little time to contemplate these questions directly, or to use the wisdom we already have deep within us. We’re constantly distracted by conversations, work, drama, television, mainstream media gossip and scandal. There are projects, tasks, chores, shopping lists and bills to pay. We lack the space or mental energy to solve our problems intuitively, so we look outside for answers: friends, online articles, therapists, books. Or we don’t look for answers, we numb ourselves with distractions instead.

In order to practice the skill of intuitive wisdom, you have to get away from all those distractions and stay completely present and open to hearing what you really feel and know in your heart. You can do this on solo walks, hikes or through mindful meditation at home. By cultivating this inner knowing you acknowledge that you have all the resources inside yourself already to solve or simply understand just about any problem or hardship that confronts you.

This means that no matter what troubles you now, deep within you already know what to do. Sometimes the answers aren’t easy and there will be work ahead, but when you listen to that inner knowing, you will not second guess yourself or have regrets later. A person who is in touch with their inner wisdom never looks back with regret over what might have been, or what they should have done instead. They always know they did the best they could with what they knew at the time.

The Activity

When you do this hike, it’s important to remain silent so that you can listen to the thoughts that pass underneath the narration going on in your mind. When you feel yourself becoming lost in daydreaming or thinking about unrelated matters back home, come back to your breath and look around to become present to the moment.

As you walk, as yourself: How do certain parts of the trail, certain vistas and changes in weather make you feel? What is your experience of the present moment? How does it relate to the answers you’re seeking?

Is nature trying to tell you something?

Pay attention to anything you observe, think or feel on the hike. Don’t try too hard to analyze everything in relationship to your question, but be curious about what unfolds. Are there strange coincidences? Is there irony somehow? Are there omens?

Symbolism and a Message

When I did this hike, I wanted to tap into what I already “knew” about the coming difficulties and challenges that were upon civilization: peak oil, economic instability and collapse, resource depletion and the resulting political battles to secure what’s left. What should I know about how to handle the challenges that will unfold in my life? What do I already know, on an intuitive level, about how I might deal with the problems to come in my own life? Did I have an idea of what would happen in the next 10-20 years?

The entire hike turned out to be full of symbolism regarding uncertainty and strength.

Raccoon TrailWhen we started out, we walked around the viewing decks by the parking lot but couldn’t find where the trail began. The most recent dusting of snow had covered up tracks and bootprints from the past week and the trail markers weren’t immediately apparent. When we did find them, we had to go by intuition anyway because there were no prints in the snow. Immediately, there was irony in our intention to cultivate “inner knowing” because we had to rely on it from the start in order to find out way through the trees. Without a visible trail or existing tracks to follow, I relied on subtle clues, such as breaks in the trees, a slightly flatter terrain, some barely discernible edge sticking up, indicating where small logs may have framed the gravel trail.

Racoon Trail

Also, just five minutes into our hike we came across a sign saying the trail was closed a half mile up ahead. I felt a little disappointed, but didn’t hesitate about continuing the hike. I felt that we would deal with the situation as we came across it, but if worse came to worse, we could always turn around and try a different trail. Seeing the warning, I proceeded with caution but didn’t let it automatically discourage me. I had a Plan B just in case, but went ahead with Plan A and let the uncertainty of the situation remain. This, too, played into the symbolism of what it would mean to prepare for the coming collapse.

Spiritual teacher and author Marshall Summers writes that part of the reason why people fail to prepare adequately (emotionally and physically) for the coming “Great Waves” of change is because they’re uncomfortable or afraid of uncertainty. These are the people who insist that technology or government will solve our problems or worse, that there really aren’t any problems and all this talk of collapse is just a bunch of “doomsayers” exaggerating a few problems.

Rock OutcroppingWhen you can sit with uncertainty and even welcome it, it builds psychological resilience for the coming challenges—whether these challenges are personal or global.

Not knowing the trail very well or why it was closed did add a level of uncertainty to the hike. As the sign promised, we did see the trail barricaded a half mile up, but that wasn’t the full story. The Raccoon Trail intersected with the Elk Trail at the half mile juncture, and the Elk Trail was the one that was closed for forest fuel mitigation operations. The Raccoon Trail continued on, wider and well-trampled (and easier to follow) at that point. That was a good lesson in uncertainty, expectations and decision-making.

winter aspensThe trees on this trail displayed evidence of a life battered by harsh weather and brutal winds. Aspens grew in curved zig zag shapes, like fingers and limbs mangled by a crushing device and healed back up. Some pine trees had bulges and buckled trunks, one tree in particular grew a Y shaped trunk because of some trauma that had been inflicted upon it in the distant past. Trees that had died and toppled over were often leaning against living trees and would squeak and creak each time the wind jostled the tree’s branches. It was like listening to a rusty hinge from some phantom door in the middle of the woods.

This forest was a display of resilience and persistence. And yet, as I passed a stand of young aspen I felt suddenly compelled to grasp the smooth, relatively straight trunk of a younger, ten foot tall tree.

I said, “Stay strong.” I shook the trunk a little, watching the branches rattle above me.

Who was really speaking and who was listening? I didn’t know why I had grasped that tree or why I had given it that advice. Perhaps the tree had spoken to me instead of the other way around. Surely, it didn’t need any advice on how to grow in this place. It had its community around it and it knew what it had to do.

That moment felt significant, somehow. As if it had come from outside of myself, as if I had tapped into a greater wisdom—a kind of wisdom we all have access to.

Reflection

Upon your return to the parking lot, reflect on what you observed and felt on the hike.

How did the trail or hike itself relate to the question you brought with you? Was there any significance to what happened or what you experienced?

Were there any moments when you had a thought or feeling that seemed to come from outside yourself? You might have had a thought come up and wondered, “Whoa, where did that come from?” When this happens, it is usually devoid of strong emotion—it doesn’t stem from fear or worry or anticipation. It may inspire emotion once you deliberate what the thought means, but the thought itself feels neutral. Did you experience anything like this?

Did anything you see on the hike (the way the trees were growing, the way the weather changed, animals or birds) lend any symbolic significance to your question?