Thought Surfing

Dr. Fiona Starr and Dr. Michael Solomon present an excellent talk on guidelines to foster resiliency. They humorously referred to the guidelines to foster resiliency as “shit manifesto”, which is managing life when shit happens. Shit refers to events which are unwelcome and challenging. People experience “shitty” stuff as “bad”, or “painful” .I love the TED talk, “Shit Happens. What next? 8 lessons on resiliency”. I think the talk is very relevant as shit happens in life. Shit happens in exponentially greater rate  in the pandemic.

Dr. Starr is a professor and clinical psychologist. Dr. Solomon is a clinical psychologist and organizational psychologist.  Both Drs. Starr and Solomon appear not just very knowledgeable, but, share their lived experiences of navigating difficult circumstances. Dr. Starr discussed losing her husband and father of her three children due to suicide.  Dr. Solomon reported having stage 4 lung cancer. Drs. Starr and Solomon summarize eight compassionate and wise guidelines of resiliency to navigate difficult circumstances.

 This post is on Drs. Starr and Solomon’s resiliency rules.   I have added a section on Eckhart Tolle’s talk on letting go of pain body and its components: thoughts and feelings. Tolle is one of my favorite spiritual teachers with his wisdom and compassionate perspective on navigating life’s challenges. I have  added little bits and pieces of my own reflections. Please note there are different strategies to deal with difficult circumstances. These are just a few strategies. Please apply the resiliency rules as you see fit.

  1. Finding the appropriate social support system to lean on during challenging times.

When we think of support system, we think of supportive, kind and caring people in our lives. Support system can include informal support (friends and family) and formal support (health professionals). However, as a person of faith, faith in a loving and caring God, Universe or Higher Power is  powerful to lean on. The Buddha states that in difficult times, a kind heart who listens to us may be more critical than a brilliant mind.  The social science literature states that social support buffers us from the stress of challenging life circumstances.  The better social support system we have, the impact of stress is less damaging on us.

      2. It is important to process emotion and perceptions regarding difficult events.  Drs. Starr and Solomon state that processing of emotions do not occur effectively in moments of crisis. In crisis, the actions of walking through the storm may require all the energy we have. Drs. Starr and Solomon discuss the concept of practicing a skill called “thinking about thinking”. Another word for it is  metacognition. Metacognition refers to observing your thought patterns. Metacognition can be helpful in navigating tough times.

Eckhart Tolle presents a very insightful talk on letting go of painful feelings. Tolle states that the pain body (painful experiences) has feelings and thoughts. He states that in painful experiences, we need to accept and acknowledge that painful feelings exists.   Acceptance of feelings is the key first step. He says that denial of painful feelings causes more suffering. Then, Tolle states that we need to explore and identify the thought patterns associated with the painful feelings. Tolle states that one strategy is to detach from the thought related to the painful experience. He says that the time that people spend in detaching from thoughts related to painful feelings varies from person to person.  Tolle recommends not feeding thoughts which trigger painful feelings.    The Buddha states that overthinking is a primary cause of unhappiness. Rumination, for example, is type of overthinking, where one thought is mentally reviewed repeatedly from different angles.  Rumination tends to include feeding a thought which triggers painful feelings. It is like chewing on a thought repeatedly. It leads to painful feelings, such as feeling stuck in difficult experiences,  and it tends to be unproductive.

Tolle articulates that self observation of thinking patterns (metacognition) related to painful feelings is a critical step. He refers to this self observation as bringing consciousness to thought patterns associated with painful feelings and unhelpful behaviors. Consciousness of thought patterns and feelings are liberating because then one has the option of not engaging in past patterns of unhelpful behavior. Rising consciousness or awareness of thoughts and feelings optimize our opportunities to engage in intentional, healthy actions and not reactive action. Tolle states that while we are unconscious or unaware of thoughts and feelings, we are more likely to react, not act with intention.

There are many different strategies of dealing with  and distancing from thoughts patterns connected to painful experiences after awareness stage.  One of my favorite strategies is   thought surfing. This is related to urge surfing, a mindfulness technique in the cognitive behavioral therapy world, used in preventing relapse of addictive behaviors.   In this model, the mind is viewed as an ocean with thoughts as waves. The idea behind thought surfing is detaching from the thought by identifying the thought wave linked to painful feelings, glide or surf on top of  the wave. As an mindful observer of the thought wave, one notices thoughts, feelings or body sensations with curiosity and nonjudgment as  the wave peaks and melts away.  The idea is to surf on top of the thought wave without falling in the thought wave associated with negative feelings.  As one surfs the thought associated with painful feelings, one can notice intensity of thought and feelings escalating in intensity, peaking, deescalating in intensity, and then melting away. The mindfulness approach to thought surfing includes observation, description (name the thoughts, feelings, body sensations)  and participation (ride it out). I love the analogy of sitting on a beach and observing thought waves. This is one strategy of learning how our minds works.

As Drs. Starr and Solomon state that naming scary things makes them less scary. They talk about Harry Potter naming the “nameless dread” as “Voldemort”, which reduces the dread. As with mindfulness techniques, thought surfing becomes easier with practice. Some models of therapy suggest different adaptive tools for soothing one’s painful emotions while thought surfing. However, thought surfing may not be helpful for everyone. Different therapy models have various innovative approaches to address painful thoughts and feelings, which are not addressed in the post.

In the Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) literature, cognitive entanglement is like falling into the wave (maladaptive thought patterns) and being swept away by its current despite all of one’s attempts to rise above the water for air. Cognitive entanglement in turbulent thought waves is stressful, as you are fighting waves, gasping for air and trying to reach the surface of the water. Cognitive entanglement includes painful feelings and engaging in unhelpful behaviors. Thought surfing allows consciousness of painful thoughts, feelings and not unconsciously engaging in destructive behaviors. Consciousness of painful thoughts and feelings permits intentionality in behaviors and implementation of helpful behaviors. An example of cognitive entanglement is being caught in catastrophic thinking. This is when we add “what if” scenarios endlessly. Pretty soon, we are like “Chicken little” who fears the sky is falling.

In thought surfing, we are not fighting or trying to control or  suppress the thought waves.   Waves are unstoppable. The nature of the ocean, like the human mind, includes different waves and moments of stillness and calm.   Some thought waves are turbulent. Some thought waves are gentle. Sometimes, there are no waves. When conceptualizing the mind as an ocean with changing thought waves, we recognize that thoughts and feelings are impermanent. One of the most insightful aspects of Buddhism is recognizing the impermanent nature of reality. In the middle of suffering, the knowledge that “this too shall pass” is very helpful.  In thought surfing, the key is observation, description and participation of (ride out) thought waves and feelings without any judgement and curiosity. I love the nonjudgmental perspective of experiences, “It is what it is” . I also recognize that this nonjudgmental stance is hard to cultivate in difficult times.

Tolle states that painful feelings dissipate in time when there is detachment from thoughts.  Cognitive fusion in the ACT literature means perceiving maladaptive thoughts waves as “facts”. The common reminder is “Do not believe everything you think”. Our minds are thought factories and produce all kinds of thought waves. In states of high stress and anxiety, our minds produce turbulent thought waves which are not always aligned with reality. Observation, identification, verbalization and surfing of thoughts help us distance ourselves from thoughts and recognize thoughts are just thoughts, not always matching with reality. Thoughts, involved in generating intense emotions, such as fear,  can be very powerful. Researchers have noted that people report higher levels of fear of public speaking than fear of dying. This is astounding. I will argue that fear may be anticipatory anxiety or fearful thoughts about what can go wrong in public speaking than the actual task of public speaking. Interestingly, Dr. Gabor Mate, well known for his contributions to the treatment of addiction and psychotherapy, states in one of his TED TALKs, that people are most afraid of their own minds, other people and death.  Again the notion that the mind can be best friend or worst enemy is very true. Mindfulness skills of observing thoughts emphasize curiosity and nonjudgement in learning thought waves without fear. There is minimal fear because as you get to know your thought patterns and feelings, you step back and not react, but choose helpful behavior with intention.


 3. One step at a time This may mean one hour at a time or even one breath at a time. The central question is am I accepting the now and what is the best healthy helpful thing I can do in the present moment. Drs. Starr and Solomon describe that the present moment can be beautiful, wonderful or downright shitty. Acceptance of the now  is important before we can decide how to engage with the moment skillfully or to the make the best out of the present. This includes training in attention and focus. This is training the mind to focus attention on what we choose to think about. Sometimes in difficult times, focusing attention on the now is critical as our mind tends to gravitate towards the past or future.  As Alan Watts, student of Taoism, states, we are always in the eternal now. Tolle also emphasizes we only  can act in the now. The past and future are unavailable. 

4. Stare at the sun Dr. Irving Yalom writes in his book, “Staring at the Sun” about people’s unconscious fear of death as  the root of anxiety and depression. Dr. Yalom argues that even though we know that death happens to all of us, when it happens, it is shocking with a sense of finality, that is overwhelming. It is difficult to stare at the sun. The pandemic has increased awareness of the possibility of death and fragility of life. The fear of death is significant for many people including myself. Drs. Starr and Solomon argue that despite staring at the sun at times, the importance of savoring the time between birth and death is critical. Carpe Diem!


5.Weebles wobble and do not fall. Weebles are resilient . Resiliency includes psychological flexibility, a powerful strength. Adaptability to different situations is a very effective tool in life as change is a permanent feature of life. Interestingly, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that the the most flexible of species which adapted to the changing environment survived. Not the strongest. The fittest. Fittest means being most flexible.

Drs. Starr and Solomon discuss the critical importance of  self compassion and self kindness as we “wobble” when faced with difficult circumstances. Self Compassion is a good thing because it removes self-judgment. We can be hardest on ourselves.

6.Love is healing.   Love soothes and heals. Please see posts on Practices of Love on the Brain which changes brain. Please also see the post on polyvagal theory and dance of the vagus nerve .This suggests that when people experience stress, any experience of feeling heard, understood and seen can be powerful co-regulatory experiences to reduce the stress of the nervous system.

7. Perfection is not the  aim The British psychiatrist, Winnicott, discussed a better focus is on  “good enough” as a surfer, parent and other areas in life.  Drs. Starr and Solomon argue the importance of “good enough” as a better goal than searching for perfection. The process of searching for perfection is like chasing a mirage of water in the desert. Drs. Solomon and Starr argue that  honest and authentic relationship with self and others are healthy and can be part of resiliency. I agree wholeheartedly that authentic relationships with loved ones are important.

8. Maya Angelou: We do not have control over certain circumstances, but, we have control over how we react to circumstances. We can choose not to be reduced by them.


Hope readers find the resiliency rules helpful. Again, a quick reminder, this is not a therapy site and material on this website is not a substitute for medical and mental health services. Please reach out for professional medical and mental health services,  as needed.