By Carla Croft
“Trains” of Thought
When I use the metaphor of a “train” with my clients they often describe this as one of the most important images they have taken away from our work, so I thought it would be helpful to share this idea here.
Often the thoughts that come into our heads feel extremely powerful. They actually feel real. We feel compelled to believe them. It feels as though they are the truth, as if we have no choice. We feel bound to our familiar thoughts, as if they are us.We ride away with them and one thing leads to another.
I like to first ask my clients to tell me about a recent time when a thought arrived and very quickly attached itself to other thoughts and an adventurous story was created. Someone I was speaking to recently told me about a missed job promotion that triggered thoughts for her about “not being good enough” for her. These thoughts felt real and integral to her as a person and led her quickly on a familiar journey that went something like “You have been found out. You’ve never been good enough. Remember that chemistry mark when you were the only one who failed. And the time your boss asked you about time management. And the time your best friend got the debating team place and you didn’t. And the time your mum said your brother was the academic one in the family. The promotion wasn’t yours this time, no. What next? You clearly don’t have what it takes to make it. They will ask you to leave soon. You will be made redundant without pay. It isn’t certain they like you anyway. You were late yesterday. You will have no job or career soon. Then what will happen to your home and your marriage?” This train ride took her to a place of anxiety and sadness that led to a sleepless night.
I ask my clients to play around with the idea that they could do something slightly different with the powerful thoughts that steam through their minds. I ask them to picture they are standing on a train platform and the thoughts that come in are a big loud train coming into the platform. Trains are often messy, screechy, smelly…they are always noticeable. However, though we definitely see them, we can stand separately from them and always have a choice about whether or not to hop on. The trains come in and out of the station and there we stand on the platform. Of course, we see it all happening. The thought train has a great presence that we don’t ignore. We acknowledge it. We even watch it for its entire length. We see it in the distance. We watch the length of the train. We can watch it leave.
When we jump on, however, it feels very different. When we buy a ticket and decide this train is for us, we go on a familiar journey. We see a lot of things on our way. We create a story. It is a mind “adventure” that can be scary, windy and compelling, but we must always remember it is one that we have chosen. It is not a true story that has come to us from afar. Thoughts are not facts and trains of thought can be jumped on and ridden or they can be simply watched and let go. Thought trains can grab our attention without being “ridden” – without taking us away. Your feet can stay grounded on the platform whilst you watch, if you want.
Alongside the train metaphor we can develop a new way of talking to ourselves about the thoughts that visit us. We can develop a new relationship to, and language for, those familiar trains that visit us often. We can start to say “The ‘I’m not good enough’ train arrived this morning. I watched it. I know it well. But I didn’t hop on because today I didn’t want to go where it often takes me.” This metaphor gives us a little bit of space between us and our thoughts, allowing us to visualise what we know in our logical minds – the thoughts that pop into our heads are mental activity, they are not mandates, they are not us. Even though we have turned up to that same old station we often use, this time we are giving ourselves a choice.
It is empowering to have a tool that helps to put space between our mental happenings and us. It means suddenly it doesn’t matter what types of thoughts come into our minds. We can think lovely things, nasty things, scary things, sad things, bizarre things, but continue to viewthese events as the passing trains that they are.
Very quickly thoughts can become behaviours and from these actions lots of good and bad consequences flow. It is important that we stand on the platform, raise our awareness of the passing train, so we can make skillful decisions about which thought trains should be ridden, that is invested in, and which ones should be allowed to ride on by.
From the ancient poetry of Rumi comes a similarly powerful image of standing outside of our thoughts and a reminder that active minds are just a part of being human.
Everyone is overriden by thoughts;
that’s why they have so much heartache and sorrow.
At times I give myself up to thought purposefully;
but when I choose,
I spring up from those under its sway.
I am like a high-flying bird,
and thought is a gnat:
how could a gnat overpower me?