Trains of Thought

Quote of the Week

“An emotion is always the result of a thought. The quality of the emotion equals the quality of the thought.”
“ Roger Mills and Elsie Spittle

Trains of Thought

by Michael Neill

I have always liked the expression “train of thought”, because it so accurately describes the way each thought which passes through our head invites us to travel with it wherever it may lead. One thought of a childhood friend can lead you on a pleasant journey all the way back down through your youth; one thought about an argument with a loved one can carry you into paroxysms of rage or daydreams of escaping into the arms of another.

Yet our thoughts are never real – they are simply internal conversations and mental movies which have no power to impact our lives until we charge them up by deciding they are important. And if we “empower” the wrong thoughts, making our negative fantasies seem more real than our external reality, it is like boarding a train to a destination we have no desire to actually reach.

That’s why the important thing to realize about your thinking, particularly your “unhappy” thinking is this:

It’s never the first thought that hurts – it’s the fifth, or fiftieth, or even five hundredth which inevitably comes when you follow a negative train of thought on its rambling journey to destinations unknown.

This raises an important question:

If you’re never quite sure where a train of thought will lead you, how do you know which thoughts to engage with and which ones to let go?

The answer, at least for me, lies not in our thoughts but in our feelings. Simply put, when you’re feeling good (happy, loving, comfortable, easy, well, etc.), your thinking will probably take you in positive directions as well. When you’re feeling bad (unhappy, stressed out, uncomfortable, unwell, etc.), chances are whichever thought you might engage with will lead you somewhere you don’t really want to go.

In this sense, you can use your feelings as a sort of an early warning system, like a traffic light for trains of thought:

  • If you’re feeling bad, that’s like a red light warning you to disengage from whatever toxic thoughts are on your mind. You don’t have to try to “stop thinking” – just don’t climb aboard the train and don’t fall for the sense of false importance and sudden urgency your thoughts might seem to have.
  • If you’re feeling somewhat neutral, that’s like a yellow light which says “proceed with caution”. It’s possible that the thoughts racing through your mind are worth paying attention to, but if you feel your mood begin to drop, jump off whatever train of thought you may have been travelling on and wait until your mood rises again to re-engage with your thinking.
  • If you’re feeling good, you’ll tend to think higher quality thoughts – and those thoughts can lead you to some pretty wonderful places.

In “You Can Have What You Want“, I share the story of how I finally learned as a teenager to recognize the difference between the suicidal trains of thought which had occupied my thinking for years and any actual desire to end my life. Once I recognized “the suicide thought” as just a thought, no more significant than any other, I was able to quickly let it go each time it arose. By not getting “on the train”, my sense of fear and suffering diminished overnight.

In the same way, if you choose to not act on your thinking when you’re feeling low, you’ll find that as your mood lifts, the quality of your thinking will lift with it – and when you climb aboard a quality train of thought, it can take you a long way towards living the life of your dreams.

(c)2007 Michael Neill, author of ˜You Can Have What You Want’ All rights reserved – Read more tips at

Coaching Call to Action

  1. Take a few minutes to watch your thoughts today, the way you might watch sticks floating down a stream or river. Although you may get caught up in the “thought stream” from time to time, return to the river bank as often as you can.
  2. Notice your mood throughout the day today. When you’re feeling up, tune in to your thinking and give yourself the freedom to climb aboard whatever trains of thought may strike your fancy. When you’re feeling low, do your best to center yourself in the present moment, recognizing that no matter how urgent or pressing a course of action may seem, chances are “it’s just a thought”.