‘I must wash my hands again’, ‘I bet she fancies him’. ‘I might as well have another piece of cake.’‘Aren’t I stupid’. These sorts of ideas or mental pictures may pop into your head unasked. They are unwanted thoughts if they are repetitive, unpleasant or difficult to resist. They exacerbate compulsive acts, jealousy, temptation, or unreasonable guilt.
Unwanted thoughts seem to be more common during times of stress or changing circumstances e.g. when you take on the extra responsibility of a new job, or when having children.
Swedenbrog’s unseen spiritual world
According to Emanuel Swedenborg, there is an unseen spirit environment around us inspiring all our thoughts and feelings – both good and bad — although we are unaware of this. People sometimes speak about “when the spirit moves me” and about “getting into the spirit” of something. Sometimes you may have noticed a guiding light that inspires hope and confidence. Other times you may have been aware of a negative idea that gnaws away unsettling you.
Relevance of spirits to unwanted thoughts according to Swedenborg
Swedenborg claimed the following 6 things:-
- He could communicate with the spirits of people in the after-life.
- After their bodily death, the earthly memories of individuals are gradually shut off and become inactive. So that in the next life, being aware only of the spirit realm, one will gradually become more conscious of one’s inner life and become less bound to what is external and worldly such as the imagery of spatial objects.
- Yet, some spirits, particularly those newly raised from bodily death, still instinctively hunger for things on the material plane.
- Being fixated on certain worldly things that have special associations for them, these spirits may try to fasten your attention upon such things.
- Just as you are unconscious of their presence, so they are not aware of you, as being a separate person from themselves, but believe that your thoughts are their own.
- When you have an affinity with them, you are liable to unconsciously attract those spirits who are the source of your obsessions.
Swedenborg’s method of tackling his unwanted thoughts
Swedenborg records that in one of his struggles against certain spirits who were obsessing his mind, he finally found refuge by fixing his gaze on a piece of wood, and from this his thought was led to the wood of the cross, and then to the thought of God. By a shift of attention, he thus broke the hold of the evil spirits.
CBT technique for tackling unwanted thoughts
Another way of shifting attention, that is used widely these days in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, is the following straightforward technique. If you notice you are obsessing about something, you need to shout the word `Stop’. If shouting out aloud is inappropriate because you are not alone, you can instead imagine that you are shouting the word. Immediately the train of obsessive thought is disrupted. For the technique to work you have to be able to believe that thinking can both block or promote your ability to cope.
Arguably, what Swedenborg is saying adds power to this approach. If you are plagued with obsessive thoughts, you probably assume that such thoughts have a compulsive power over you. This is understandable given their intrusive persistent nature. Also such a belief is likely if you assume that you are responsible for the obsessions.
A helpful change of attitude about unwanted thoughts
However, you may be able to accept what Swedenborg reports — that you are unconscious of both creative and unhelpful thoughts flowing from spirits. If so, then you will no longer attribute either the creative inspiration or the obsession to yourself but instead to sources outside of yourself.
The consequence of this changed belief is that you can be confident that it is possible to start to free yourself from the hold of the infesting spirits as long as you do not identify yourself with their desires and ideas. With practice you can more easily neglect to pay attention to what comes from them and so they will gradually leave you alone.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems