The Opposite Game: A Practical Exercise to Alleviate Troublesome Thoughts
Modern man favors the book to the garden.
The modern mind prefers intellectual discourse to mechanical practice. Instead of putting a philosophical tenet into action, we too often choose to simply intellectualize the doctrine.
Our self-inquiry begins with the investigation of the philosophical cart and ignores the dynamism of the horse. And yet, it is the dynamic horse that breathes life into the philosophical cart. Change emerges from behavioral or cognitive action, not from intellectual discourse.
“Forgetting oneself is opening oneself.” ~ Master Dogen-zenji
Let’s examine three philosophical treatments of thought before we dive into our exercise.
Zen Buddhism suggests that our thoughts are defined by sunyata, or emptiness. Zen philosophy posits that it is our belief in our thoughts that creates the illusion of their objective reality; the thought itself does not possess any inherent foundation in reality.
Steven Hayes, PhD emphasizes the “de-fusion” between the Self and the thought in his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Dr. Hayes refers to the individual experiencing the world as the Self-as-context (Harris, 2009). However, I find a greater clarity in replacing “Self-as-context” with Daniel Kahneman, PhD’s description of the Experiencing-Self (Kahneman, 2011).
The Experiencing-Self (and the Self-as-context) is the pregnant void from which the present moment emerges. The Experiencing-Self is that component of oneself that experiences thoughts, emotions, and situations while remaining independent from them.
The Experiencing-Self can be contrasted with the Remembering-Self (Kahneman, 2011). The Remembering-Self is defined by our memories and imagined futures whereas the Experiencing-Self is a self-consuming flame of pure experience and change.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dr. Hayes posits that it is the fusion of the Experiencing-Self and the thought that makes the thought appear substantive. If we don’t believe in the truth of a thought, then it quickly returns to the void from which it emerged. It is only when a particularly “interesting” thought appears that the Experiencing-Self is tricked into believing that the thought is an object and not just a subjective shadow. “Interesting” thoughts tend to be personally relevant and emotionally charged (either positively or negatively).
The thought, “clouds are solid,” is uninteresting because of its obvious falsehood, and thus will quickly disappear from the Experiencing-Self’s working memory. However, a thought like “I am unworthy of love” is a more interesting thought and may plague an individual’s thinking for their entire life.
The therapist and patient work together in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to disentangle the patient’s Experiencing-Self from his or her troublesome thoughts, providing a new objective clarity to the patient’s life.
Similarly, cognitive therapy focuses on the identification of our reflexive patterns of cognition, consisting of “automatic thoughts.”
Imagine that you were ridiculed throughout your childhood in response to the most minor of mistakes. Now as an adult, whenever you make an error at work or at home you experience the reflexive automatic thought, “I’m stupid,” or, “I always make mistakes.” These automatic thought patterns can begin to overgeneralize, and over time patients may be plagued with a near-constant stream of self-belittling inner discourse.
Cognitive therapy prioritizes the empirical investigation of our thought patterns and the unearthing of those automatic thoughts that arise reflexively in response to triggering situations. The identification process allows the patient to begin to view these automatic thoughts objectively and empowers the patient to learn new ways of reacting to triggering situations.
The preceding discussion should remind the reader that despite the differences in philosophical structure between Zen, ACT, and cognitive therapy, thoughts are universally treated as vaporous, plastic, and lacking in fundamental substance.
And yet, unless we develop an accompanying practice, philosophical rhetoric is like a voice in the wind, swept past our ear with but a fragmentary comprehension.
One final disclaimer must be considered before we proceed. The Thought-Full Logistician will likely supply a version of the following objection: “If all thoughts are unreal, how am I to go about my day?”
In response, I would like to briefly examine the distinction between discursive and operational thinking.
Discursive thought is an uncontrolled and rambling form of thinking. The worries, ruminations, obsessions, and daydreams that comprise most of our daily patterns of thought are discursive in nature.
Conversely, operational thinking is employed when we solve a math problem, alter our wardrobe to match a weather forecast, or plan a trip across country. Operational thought is light and efficient whereas discursive thought is bulky and circuitous.
Hopefully, the Logistician can now appreciate that it is not a total dissolution of thought that I am advocating for. Instead, I suggest that a more equitable utilization of discursive and operational thought would allow the Experiencer to appreciate a more peaceful state of mind.
A thought by any other name would be as formless.
Until now, I have hypocritically outlined a purely philosophical approach to our thoughts without providing any practical advice on how to manifest this philosophy in action. With that admission, let’s turn to a practical exercise.
I must first provide ample credit to Byron Katie’s Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life (2002). This book, and in particular the four pragmatic questions contained within, represents a crowning achievement in the practical application of self-examination.
The final step in Katie’s four-question process is known as the “turn around.” And although the practice that I will outline for the reader is analogous to this final step, I have drawn from many sources (Zen, ACT, cognitive therapy, etc.) in creating this exercise. Most importantly, the following technique is a result of personal practice and self-experimentation.
Today is opposite day.
We will refer to today’s exercise as the Opposite Game. The Opposite Game requires that you generate the opposite form of a troublesome thought and then observe it. At first glance, this exercise might seem rather simplistic, however, like most things, the devil is in the details.
Let’s first examine the mechanics of the Opposite Game, and then we can discuss the ground rules.
We will use an example to clarify how to go about forming the opposite version of a given thought.
Take the thought, “I am unworthy of love.”
An opposite form of this thought would be, “I am worthy of love.”
We begin with our original thought in the form of a complete sentence and then generate the opposite formulation, again in the form of a complete sentence.
Sometimes the practitioner must be creative in constructing the opposite formulation.
Take for example the thought, “He hurt me.” The opposite formulation, “He did not hurt me,” does very little to open the mind. But the formulations, “I hurt me,” or “I hurt him,” may act as incredible catalysts for conceptual expansion.
Rather than universally replacing a “yes” with a “no,” the Opposite Game sometimes requires that the practitioner exchange pronouns, situations, or other details to create a more potent opposite formulation. The form of the opposite thought that feels the most jarring is normally the formulation that you should use.
Now let’s examine the ground rules for the Opposite Game.
The opposite thought is created for observational purposes only. You should not try to intellectualize, justify, or find evidence for or against either the original or the opposite thought. You must resist the strong urge to create derivative thoughts that support your original thought or discount the opposite formulation.
Examples of such derivative thoughts for the previous example, “I am unworthy of love,” would be “I instigated the divorce,” or “I cheated on my partner.”
Derivative thoughts must be avoided because they are just as biased by your mood, personal history, and life circumstances as the original thought that caused so much pain. The use of your intellectual mind to “reason” with your thoughts is a bit like trying to look at your own eyes without the aid of a mirror.
The strength of the temptation to create a for-and-against list of the original and opposite thought forms may surprise you. The thinking mind is invested in the belief that its creations (thoughts) are substantive. If the thinking mind were unable to trust the legitimacy of its own thoughts, it would have to admit its own unreality. And as anyone who has contemplated that which lies beyond death knows, nonexistence is a terrifying contemplative subject. Thus, your thinking mind’s attachment to its own thoughts is a matter of life-and-death.
Because of the thinking mind’s obsession with intellectual discourse, I cannot overstate the necessity of insulating your original and opposite thought from all intellectual investigation. Imagine that the original thought and its opposite were carved into a rock face. You should nonjudgmentally observe the engraved words and accept that they cannot and should not be changed, reasoned with, or ignored.
The Opposite Game may seem too subtle an exercise to have any real benefit. You must remember, however, that the mind is a glutton for experience, and that it will absorb all that is placed before it. Any object held in working memory for long enough becomes “real” to the mind. The maintenance of an opposite thought formulation in your mind’s eye will inevitably begin to loosen the original thought’s hold on your Experiencing-Self.
Because some practitioners have particular difficulty avoiding derivative justification or disagreement with the original and opposite form of a thought respectively, allow me to add one additional wrinkle. If you are unable to stop yourself from adding additional thoughts to the original or opposite thought forms, then simply play the Opposite Game with your derivative thoughts.
Let’s return to our original example to learn how to deal with troubling derivative thoughts.
Original Thought: “I am unworthy of love.”
Opposite Thought: “I am worthy of love.”
Derivative Thought, objecting to the opposite formulation: “But I cheated on my partner.”
Opposite of the derivative thought: “I cheated on myself,” or “My partner cheated on me.”
Again, I would implore the practitioner to stick with these derivatives and not to allow the mind to pull another loose thread in the infinitely tangled ball of intellectual yarn. But if the thinking mind insists on continuing to create derivative thoughts, then use the Opposite Game to exhaust the derivation machine that is your thinking mind. If need be, continue to peel the thought onion until all that remains is your empty palm.
Let’s consider another example. In this example, the imaginary protagonist will be unable to resist creating derivative thoughts. It cannot be overemphasized that you will reap the greatest benefit by avoiding the temptation to generate derivative thoughts and arguments. But because this is such a common pitfall, I will risk exploring the derivative path to illustrate the practice.Situation: Your superior requested that you perform a particularly onerous task and type up a lengthy report by week’s end. You ended up staying late every day in order to complete the project on time. Today is Friday and you are finally ready to turn in your report. You enter your superior’s office and he or she barely acknowledges your presence as you submit the requested project. Without a word of appreciation, your superior waves you out of his or her office.
Original Thought: “My boss doesn’t appreciate my work.”
Opposite Thought: “My boss does appreciate my work,” or “I don’t appreciate my work,” or “I don’t appreciate my boss’s work.”
For me the last formulation is the most jarring and interesting, but I will stick with the first and most concrete version of the opposite thought to illustrate the treatment of derivative thoughts.
Derivative Thought: “But my boss has never once thanked me for a completed project,” or “Everyone in the office agrees that my boss doesn’t appreciate his/her subordinates’ work.”
There are many opposite forms of these derivative thoughts, but I will suggest the opposite thought that is the most jarring to me.
Opposite Derivative Thought: “I have never needed my boss to thank me for a completed project.”
At the risk of belaboring the point, it is important not to treat the Opposite Game as an intellectual exercise. Use your intellect to generate the most potent opposite and then set your intellect aside. Simply experience the opposite thought form as it is. When your attention naturally wanders from the opposite thought, return to your daily activities. But every time the original thought reasserts itself, also bring the opposite thought form into your working memory.
We generally believe that our thoughts are the concrete products of a rational investigation of “reality.” The Opposite Game, if practiced regularly and wholeheartedly, has the power to reveal that our thoughts and perceived “reality” are nothing more than a vaporous approximation of an “objective” world.
But don’t take my word for it, play the game.
Gunaratana, B., & Gunaratana, H. (2011). Mindfulness in plain English. Wisdom Publications Inc.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Katie, B., & Mitchell, S. (2002). Loving what is: Four Questions Can Change Your Life. Random House.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Rinpoche, Y. M. (2007). The joy of living. New York: Three Rivers.
Suzuki, S. (2010). Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Shambhala Publications.