My new spiritual practice: Dealing with “demonic” thoughts
I’ve been writing about what I’ve learned from counseling in the past year. My counselor suggested separating thoughts from feelings, which I described in the first post. In the second post and third post of this series, I described how I deal with feelings. In this post, I’ll talk about thoughts.
I observe two major categories of thoughts that don’t help me in any way:
- Catastrophic thoughts about the future. “What if this happens?” “What if that happens?”
- Judgmental thoughts about myself. “What’s wrong with me that I don’t I trust God more?” “What kind of a person would eat cookies for comfort instead of coping with her emotions in a more healthy way?”
My counselor called these kinds of thoughts “demonic,” and for me that’s accurate. The thoughts predict a future that might or might not happen, a future I have no control over. The thoughts express judgment for myself and show no compassion.
The thoughts mask feelings. I find that if I go through the RAIN process that I described in the previous two blog posts (here and here), it takes some effort to figure out what feelings lie behind the thoughts. Once I identify the feelings and walk through the four steps of RAIN, some of the demonic thoughts simply go away. They were functioning as cover-ups for painful feelings. They were enabling me to avoid feeling those feelings, an avoidance technique that was just as bad, or even worse, than the thing I was avoiding.
When the RAIN process simply dissolves the thoughts, it feels like a miracle. However, sometimes the thoughts remain or come right back after I do RAIN. Sometimes I there are more feelings lying behind the thoughts, and a second round of RAIN, focused on different feelings, helps. But sometimes every then, the counterproductive thoughts remain.
In that case, I have a number of strategies:
- Name the choice out loud.
“Do you want to keep thinking these thoughts or do you want to trust God with the future? I want to trust God with the future.”
“Do you want to continue to judge yourself, or do you want to have the kind of compassion on yourself that God has for you? I want to have compassion on myself because God has compassion for me.”
- Pray the serenity prayer. I do it using my breath, three or four breaths for each line.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Sometimes I add another line, “Grant me the serenity to leave in the future the things that belong in the future.”
- Pray the Jesus prayer with variations. Again, I use my breath, one breath for each phrase.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace,
have mercy on me, grant me your peace.
Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, Bright Morning Star,
Light to my path, Lamp to my feet,
have mercy on me, guide my steps.
- Imagine myself handing my thoughts to Jesus. I picture myself standing with Jesus beside a beautiful river, the river of God’s love. I hand my thoughts to Jesus and he throws them in the river, where they disappear into the hugeness of God’s love.
- Pray a scripture. I find Psalm 139 and Ephesians 3:14-19 to be helpful.
This process I’ve been describing – separating thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings in a spirit of self-compassion, then dealing with any remaining thoughts by using a variety of spiritual practices – is helping me cope with stress so much better. This is a gift of healing that comes from God, parallel to the miraculous healings in the Gospels.
The purpose of this gift is so that I can trust, honor, love and serve God more fully. It’s a further step of my life belonging to the Triune God.