Automatic Thoughts

When I was about three or four years old I had this toy that was kind of like a giant erector set designed especially for building cars big enough for a kid to ride around in. It had lengths of angled metal that you fastened together with big plastic nuts and bolts to make a chassis, and there were curved metal panels that you fastened into place to make a hood or a trunk or whatnot. It was really quite a cool toy – one that I never tired of taking apart and putting back together in different ways. Oh, and of course I rolled around in it a lot, as well. I know I was pretty young at the time because the wheels were just a very simple, hollow plastic design with steel bushings at the center that allowed them to turn smoothly on their axle. They certainly couldn’t have handled much more weight than a three or four year-old kid.

Anyway, I remember well the last time I ever rode in that sporty little vehicle. My big sister and I took it to the top of the hill at the end of the street where she gave me the biggest running push that she could muster. Well…, I… was… flying! It was certainly the most thrilling ride I’d had up to that point in my short life; and I just seemed to keep going faster and faster – even after the hill began leveling off. It was as if I had an engine propelling me or something! There was just one little problem, though. By the time I finally rolled to a halt the wheels were all wobbly and crooked. Apparently the steel hubs had gotten a little too hot from the friction, thereby causing the plastic wheels to melt away from them. After that it was just the thin plastic of the wheels spinning on their steel axles – getting hotter and hotter and melting bigger and bigger holes in the wheels as they did. Needless to say, the hot plastic wheels were essentially making their own lubrication as they rolled – thereby allowing them to spin almost friction-free. It seemed abundantly clear to even the young child that I was that the wild ride I’d just enjoyed was the direct result of my fine little vehicle self-destructing along the way. Yes, and all the while I’d been oblivious to what was happening.

Fast forward about thirty years. Long forgotten was that child’s toy, as were the events of that summer day in a glorious childhood. What remained, however, was the nagging sense that whenever things were going really, really well was precisely the time to be on guard for things going really, really wrong. And just where the heck did that tendency come from, anyway! The fact of the matter was, however, that at the time I didn’t know where that tendency came from. It was just a pattern that I’d begun to notice – a way of thinking that would arise whenever things were going just a little “too” smoothly.

Well, I puzzled over that enough that I finally did remember the story that I’ve just related to you about that little car with the plastic wheels, and one last wild and joyfully oblivious ride. Interestingly, once I was conscious of the fact that this certain pattern of thinking had been wired into my brain, and why, I was able to keep from being unduly influenced by it. The unconscious had become conscious, and in so doing it had lost its power over me. Now, if such a thought ever pops into my head, I’m able to make note of it and wonder for a moment whether it has any valid information to convey, or whether it is just me still looking at the world through the eyes of the child that I once was – that child who remembers experiencing great joy and great disappointment within seconds of each other.


Conditioning can be a help or a hindrance depending upon the situation. It can arise from an accurate view of reality or an inaccurate one. It can happen gradually over the course of years or it can occur in a matter of seconds depending upon the nature of the circumstances. Certainly, from an evolutionary standpoint, conditioning is what allowed (and allows) us to survive. Becoming aware of patterns in the movement of animals or certain features of the land that tended to make edible plants available was crucial to us living long enough to pass on our genes. Conditioning allows us to take in vast amounts of information, scan it for patterns, and then take action that is appropriate – all very quickly and with a minimum of effort.

A friend of mine once had a dog – a beautiful and brave little animal. Whenever the heater or air conditioner would kick on while he happened to be in the vicinity of one of the vents, however, he would suddenly become this meek and timid creature – cautiously eyeing and sniffing at the vent in order to be prepared for who-knows-what. We used to chuckle about that but, you know, being overly cautious is generally the safest way to be from the standpoint of survival. The difficulty for us humans is that the safest way to be from the standpoint of survival is not necessarily the best way to be from the standpoint of our happiness or our relationships or our spiritual progress. Success with respect to these aspects of our lives generally involves us letting go of fear, relinquishing our armor, and leaving our defensive strategies by the wayside. Thus, my vigilance for what might be going wrong in the face of everything going right – while advantageous (perhaps) in those rare circumstances where I might need a reminder not to get swept up in the moment and let my guard down – most often kept me from just experiencing the “rightness” of the moment in its fullest measure, without being tempered by unwarranted concern.  

Automatic Thoughts

Aaron Beck is a psychiatrist who was undergoing training in psychoanalytic methods when he began to realize that there was something deeper going on with his patients’ thought processes than became evident via such means as conventional free association, for instance. It occurred to him that it might be the case that “people are accustomed to speaking to themselves in one way and to speaking to others in quite another way” (Beck, 1979, p. 35). This self-talk – rather than going unreported by the individual out of any sense of shame on their part – might, in fact, escape scrutiny because it is either so deeply ingrained in their psyche as to seem beyond question, or because it is actually taking place on an unconscious level. Says Beck (1979):
These automatic thoughts… had a number of characteristics in common. They… were specific and discrete. They occurred in a kind of shorthand…. Moreover, these thoughts did not arise as a result of deliberation, reasoning, or reflection…. The thoughts “just happened,” as if by reflex. They seemed to be relatively autonomous in that the patient made no effort to initiate them and, especially in the more disturbed cases, they were difficult to “turn off.” (p. 36)

Most importantly, and more radically at the time from the standpoint of Western psychology, was Beck’s growing awareness of the intermediating role that these thoughts play between stimulus and response. Once again, Beck (1979) says:
Some argue that the emotional response is triggered directly by the external stimuli and the person inserts his cognitive appraisal of the event only retrospectively. A person who is trained to track his thoughts, however, can observe repeatedly that his interpretation of a situation precedes his emotional response to it. (p. 28)

It might be fruitful for us to think of these automatic thoughts that Beck is talking about in light of our recent discussion of the bandwidth of consciousness, for one, and Yoshida’s structural interpretation of the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination, for another. (Please see Part 5 of my series of posts related to dependent origination.) Recall that the bandwidth of consciousness is only about 40 bits per second compared to the millions of bits per second that we are bombarded with. Quite obviously, this means that we are largely unaware on the conscious level of the massive amount of processing of stimuli taking place within our nervous systems every second of every day. Beck is essentially saying that at least some of this processing stimulates patterns of cognition (so structured by our memories and our previous emotional reactions to similar experiences) that end up giving rise to the emotional states that we experience. Note how similar this is to the structural interpretation of the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination outlined by Yoshida (1994) wherein we have contact giving rise to consciousness and feeling which then becomes subject to “processing” via the dictates of our existing formations (karma) and our nescience (our inability to see things as they really are).

Even if the process is spoken of in slightly different ways using very different language, there is a striking fundamental similarity between the way Beck views suffering and the way Buddhists do. Yes, it is true that for Beck suffering encompasses such clinical manifestations as depression, anxiety, neuroses, etc., whereas for Buddhists suffering is a much more innate and universal phenomenon. However, both ways of looking at suffering essentially involve suffering arising from some shortcoming or short-circuiting in the way that we process information. For Beck, the shortcoming involves automatic thoughts such as “I can’t do anything right” or, as in my case, “things are going just a little too smoothly right now”, which, upon activation, result in a detrimental impact on our mood. Of course, these automatic thoughts are merely a specific manifestation of karma – karma that has been forged by our fundamental nescience. In each case, as well, the solution is increased awareness. For Beck this increased awareness involves our becoming aware of the automatic thoughts that are causing our suffering and then restructuring our cognition. For a Buddhist this increased awareness involves our cultivating a more accurate view of reality, thereby allowing us to respond to stimuli in such a way that no longer gives rise to suffering.

Well, thank you for reading! I hope looking at such real-life examples of how our minds work examined through both Eastern and Western "lenses" will allow you to dispel any "automatic thoughts" you might be experiencing regarding either the strangeness of Buddhism or the inapplicability of psychology. I also wish you all a happy and safe holiday weekend – free of all inaccurate cognition and any suffering that might result from it!


Beck, A. T. (1979) Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. A Meridian Book, Published by the Penguin Group.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono via:


  1. I've been thinking a lot about conditioning today, specifically how it affects or is affected by personality (extroversion vs. introversion, for example). Which got me thinking about karma - referring to it as habit energy in this particular context makes sense, at least to me. I know I'm definitely more aware of my thoughts, automatic or otherwise, so that's a step in the right direction. :)

  2. Hello Kristen! Introversion/extroversion is largely a trait that we are born with. However, we introverts definitely live in an extrovert-centric culture and, in order to cope, we try to train ourselves to be more extroverted (or our culture trains us). Ultimately, however, we have to accept who/what we are.

    Elaine Arons has done much research regarding what she calls 'the highly sensitive person.' Her website is You might find it interesting.

    There may not be much you can do to change your introverted nature but, to the extent that you are perhaps affected by automatic thoughts of a self-judging nature, you might be able to become more accepting of it.

  3. I actually have a copy of that book. And I've also done a lot of research on this particular subject - I even wrote a paper on it in college! Not that I'm an expert or anything. As for accepting my nature, I'm working on it, although it can sometimes be difficult. I'm glad I'm not alone!


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