Intrusive Thoughts & Ignatian Discernment
It's all like water on a sponge 💧
I never realized I dealt with intrusive thoughts until now. I always just assumed I possessed a heightened and vivid thought life that held a death grip on my anxiety for fun. Apparently there is a word for this type of mental activity: intrusive thoughts.
The general definition for intrusive thoughts is: an unwelcome and involuntary thought, image, or idea.
What clued me into this new awareness around intrusive thoughts was a video of a psychologist talking about the thoughts that are ours and the ones that aren't. For all the training and learning I’ve had around mental health and spirituality, I hadn’t been introduced to this concept. Perhaps it was hiding in all the Calvinist discussion around the good and ills of the thought life I’d heard in seminary, oh so long ago.
As I let this new found information tumble around inside me a (non-intrusive) thought occurred: What if all this business about my thought life was what the sixteenth century theologian St. Ignatius was getting on about (without the twenty-first century psychological terminology)?
I’ve always admired St. Ignatius. He was passionate about discernment (aka. making wise decisions). I learned about him while I was attending the aforementioned Calvinist seminary through my spiritual director. Ignatius acknowledged the difficulty of making good decisions in one’s life, particularly as one grows in age and the decisions move from being between a good thing and a bad thing (e.g., driving after drinking) and become increasingly between good and good-er things (e.g., attending grad school A or grad school B) that may not have obvious “right vs. wrong” elements to them.
Ignatius also had terms for the feelings involved in these good vs. good-er decisions in life: consolation and desolation. Consolation being the feel-good feelings; desolation being the feel-like-crap feelings. He said these feelings can be helpful in making wise decisions. But, he warned, don’t be quick to think that our feelings are the only source of wisdom! They, indeed, are not. One can be swayed by feelings alone, if not harnessed with the wisdom of acknowledging the direction of one’s soul towards God in all the decision making. He also, unhelpfully, called these directions “consolation” (moving toward God) and “desolation” (moving away from God). Ignatius rightfully concluded that a good looking decision (something that looks wise on the outside) could actually be taking a person away from God.
A quick example from my own life. I was once offered a job at an Apple store and I turned it down. There were lists of pros and cons, and feelings of being a part of something cool — but ultimately it would have taken me away from what I strongly sensed God was inviting me to move into (pursuing art school and my own photographic practice). So while it would have in the moment felt great to accept the position, I knew deep down it would have moved me away from what God was inviting me to explore. Walking away from that job with Apple has proven to be one of the top seven best decisions in my life.
Ignatius’ principles can be summarized in the metaphor of water hitting either a rock or a sponge. Water hitting a rock feels aggressive. It’s jarring and it bounces back off the rock’s surface. Water hitting a sponge, however, meets a soft landing. It’s absorbed into the sponge. The sponge receives the water.
And that is all like intrusive thoughts.
Let me explain further. Ignatius’ ideas help us see under the surface of our initial thoughts, ideas, and even feelings. Intrusive thoughts hit like water on a rock: aggressive, rejecting, othering. Using this frame work, once we’ve identified if intrusive thoughts are something we struggle with, we can use the awareness of Ignatius’ ideas around discernment to help us navigate our own thought life.
A thought enters that feels heavy and sad and accusatory? It’s likely an intrusive thought.
A thought enters that makes you feel light as a feather? It’s likely not an intrusive thought. And you’ll experience this even more when this lightness accompanies difficult decisions, like: turning down an opportunity, confessing something to someone you care about, etc. Not that these things are easy or fun (they don’t feel like consolation), but the relief that comes with the truth they bear gives relief (like in the second meaning of consolation).
Intrusive thoughts never bring relief.
May you find the relief of identifying intrusive thoughts when they come, naming them for what they are (unwanted and involuntary), and the reprieve of learning how to let them go knowing they were never yours to begin with.
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