When an insect sticks in a web, panic seizes him. He moves with all his strength to try to get away, but those movements, which should free him, actually tie him even more to the web and end up being fatal as they warn the spider of his presence.
That pattern also repeats itself in our life. Sometimes we become prisoners of ourselves and, in the attempt to escape, we end up even more entangled in the networks we have built around us. We create, without realizing it, blind alleys, double mental ties that keep us trapped in a situation that harms us or causes us discomfort.
What is the double mental tie?
The double mental tie is a situation in which the more we strive to “solve” a problem, the more we complicate it, the more we strive to get rid of an emotion or thought, the more we reinforce them.
Alan Watts summed up perfectly the idea of the double mental tie: “creating a problem trying to solve it, grieving because one is afflicted and fearing the fear”.
We ourselves create a situation from which we cannot exit because every attempt to escape only reinforces the problem or creates new obstacles. We believe that we look for exits, but in reality we work for hiding them.
How does the double mental tie work?
Complaints are a perfect example to understand how the double mental tie works in our day to day. Laments not only express a state of discontent but also multiply the difficulties because we focus only on the obstacles and the negative consequences of the fact for which we complain.
Complaining is like putting a black bandage on our eyes wanting to see the colors of the world. By developing a negative view of what happened, we are prevented from finding the solution because our mind becomes a factory of problems. When we tie ourselves to complaints, to everything that has gone wrong and to what can go wrong, we condemn ourselves to immobility.
The complaints make that, to the problem, we must also add a problem of attitude to the circumstances, plus the mental negativity that prevents us from finding solutions. For that reason, lamenting becomes a dead end, a double mental tie.
Obviously, there are many other situations of the daily life in which we tie our hands and feet.
Such is the case of negative recurring thoughts, for example. When we want to remove an unwanted thought from our mind, the attempt to stop thinking about it activates a hypervigilance mechanism that reinforces that thought even more. It is a battle lost in advance because we fall into the trap that we tend to ourselves. The more you try to stop thinking about pink elephants, the more you will think about them.
Every time we worry about worrying, we fear anxiety or become depressed because we are sad, we are creating a situation from which it is impossible for us to escape because we cannot solve a problem with the same mentality with which it was created.
How to undo that double mental knot?
The key, or at least one of them, lies in the non-action or the Wu-Wei principle; that is, let everything follow its natural course. If you do not strive to remove a thought from your mind, sooner or later it will disappear because the natural course of the mind involves jumping from one thought to another without clinging to any one in particular.
A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin found that people who try to actively suppress their unwanted thoughts end up more stressed by the thoughts they want to eliminate. On the contrary, those who naturally accept these intrusive thoughts become less obsessed with them and, as a result, suffer less anxiety and have lower levels of depression.
Another recent study carried out at the University of Toronto revealed that the same principle applies to affective states. Dealing with emotional pain we have to learn that ccepting negative emotions reduces their intensity, allowing us to move faster and with less suffering.
Therefore, if you do not feed the fear of fear, worry for worry or sadness for sadness, those emotions will end up disappearing, as if they were clouds dragged by the wind. It is a radical acceptance, assuming an attitude of mental detachment in which we separate ourselves from the mentality that created the problem, in order to solve it.
A poem by Seng-ts’an called “Verses on the faith mind” is particularly revealing in order to get rid of the double mental tie:
“The wise man strives to no goals
but the foolish man fetters himself. […]
To seek Mind with discriminating mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.”
Ford, B. Q. et. Al (2018). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 115 (6): 1075-1092.
Marcks, B. A. & Woods, D. W. (2005) A comparison of thought suppression to an acceptance-based technique in the management of personal intrusive thoughts: a controlled evaluation. Behaviour Research and Therapy; 43(4): 433-445.