​What to Do when I Start to Catastrophise Everthing?

Aug 17, 2020

 

QUESTION
Hi Robina,

I hope you’re keeping well in these strange times. I’ve been following your recent travels on Facebook and it doesn’t come as a surprise that you are a welcome guest wherever you go. By way of background, you’re the first teacher I went to see. Everything about your approach to Buddhism resonated strongly with me and the recent evening session you held online made lockdown much easier to bear.

I’m relatively new to Buddhism, having taken an introductory course recently. studying the Discovering Buddhism course through FPMT and I’m just finishing up one of the modules.

At the Zoom teaching recently I asked you a question about catastrophising, although I wasn’t brave enough to go into too much detail. I’d like to follow up on that if you don’t mind. Due to a traumatic incident in my childhood, which I’m working through with the help of a therapist, I suffer from intrusive thoughts. I’ve been trying to figure out where they fall within Buddhist teachings, and the nearest I can get is attachment of some kind. Can you help me understand please?

Thanks,
L

ANSWER
Good to hear from you, L!

I’d be glad to discuss your intrusive thoughts, but I think I need to know a bit more; I don’t quite understand. If you don’t want to be specific about the actual thoughts, just describe generally what happens.

I’m happy to help.
Robina

QUESTION
Hi Robina,

Thanks for getting back to me. 

The incident happened when I was quite young, and I apparently blocked it out, so I don’t know much about the circumstances. However, a conversation with my parents late last year and working through my issues as an adult with my therapist confirm something traumatic occurred.

The problem is my vivid imagination has been trying to fill in the gaps and catastrophising means that I go straight for the worst-case scenario. Sometimes I follow that train of thought even deeper. As a consequence, I’ve been suffering with anxiety (mediation has helped me get in under control) and I’m questioning my most important relationships. 

Does that make more sense? Sorry if I’m still being vague, but I’m reluctant to commit too much in writing, so to speak.

ANSWER
Dear L,

I understand. Because we have attachment — it’s primordially deep — we simply cannot cope with bad things happening. When attachment doesn’t get what it wants, and this is certainly what happened when bad things happened to you as a child, aversion and fear arise and often we push the memories away.

But they don’t disappear. Everything we think and hear and see and experience is stored in our mind. 

In reality, there is nothing to be afraid of. When we can have the courage to remember the events, we can learn to reinterpret them and thus lessen the fears. It’s the denial of the events, or the resentment of them, or the anger — whatever negative emotion — that causes the worse suffering, not the events themselves. 

What do you think?

Robina

QUESTION
Hi Robina,

Thanks again for your response.

I suppose that begs the question what negative emotion am I dealing with? I’ve been through the anger/resentment phase and I’m not in denial (I only started to confront this problem in my late thirties). 

It’s the gaps that are troubling me and causing the doubt and subsequently the intrusive thoughts and anxiety. However, as discussed with my therapist, I may never get answers regardless of how I proceed.

I suppose I’m looking for a way to understand and manage these emotions as I may well be stuck with them for life. 

ANSWER
From the Buddhist point of view, L, there is no unhappy/neurotic/deluded state of mind that we can’t eventually eliminate — that’s the fundamental point in Buddhist psychology. The delusions — anger, attachment, fear, jealousy, depression, you name it — are not at the core of our being.

What we try to do in the West is delve into the past to try to recall the event. In a way, Buddhist practice if more subtle, but almost more simple, and certainly more direct.

Bad things might have happened to us in the past — for sure! We don’t need to remember the bad thing. We can be certain that because it wasn’t what attachment wanted, aversion or anger or fear would have arisen at the time, and then of course we forget it as we get older. But all this stuff is stored in our memory. 

Of course, if we do recall the event, we don’t need to resist it. Let it come into the mind. Then the fear dissipates.

The point is, by working on our minds now, by doing the purification practices, we purify these delusions as well as the imprints in our mind.

So, persevere, keep going, keep practicing, keep being aware of your mind. One step at a time!

You mention meditation. What do you like to do?

Love to you,
Robina

QUESTION
Many thanks once again, Robina.

It’s still early days but I feel like I’m at the start of a lifelong journey. And I’m incredibly grateful that our paths crossed at such an early stage. 

To date, most of my meditation has involved trying to focus on my breath, although I sit for 25 mins, six days a week. Just working my way through the meditation module of Discovering Buddhism, so I’ve been experimenting with other forms. Do you recommend any in particular?

ANSWER
Yes, you’re on your lifelong journey! So never give up. Buddha’s view about the mind is pretty wonderful: there is nothing we can’t change. So, keep moving!

The key thing is to work on the mind right now: deal with our attachment and anger and fear and the rest right now. We don’t to delve into the past. By working with our minds now, that’s what heals!

And don’t try to force it all away when it all comes up. The old habits have been there a long time. The real skill is to hear all the thoughts, and let them come and go. Don’t give them power. And don’t deny them. And, crucially, don’t identify yourself with the thoughts. 

Identify with your goodness, your intelligence, your kindness — all the good qualities. They are who we really are!

Do different meditations, keep learning, keep going. You’re doing beautifully. As the Tibetans say, “Nothing gets more difficult with practice.”

Love to you,
Robina

QUESTION
Thanks again Robina.

To paraphrase something I read in module 2 of Discovering Buddhism, “My mind is the blue sky, not the clouds.”

ANSWER
There you go! Rx

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