Playing with language can be a powerful way to reframe burdensome thoughts.
I grew up pickled in puns. My father was such an incessant punster that my cousins would often challenge him to a punning contest. The idea was to see who could make the most puns on a chosen topic. I remember one time when the topic was trees. “Are you ready, Uncle Bob?” my cousin asked my father. “Walnut quite yet ... Oak-K. I’m ready, but I maple out to a lead quickly. I’ll beech you at this! I’ll sycamore of my people on you if you cheat!” The room would fill with guffaws. The idea wasn’t to win, it was just to delight in playing with words.
One of the surprising discoveries of my life is that wordplay can be not only a way to lighten our energy with laughter but also a path to deeper, even enlightening awareness. I consider wordplay a portal to wisdom. Because my thoughts present themselves so often in words, playing with words allows my thinking to get out of broken-record grooves and move toward better music.
Dad was also a birder. He was always refilling numerous feeders throughout the winter. As a boy, thinking it was a boring hobby for older people, I mostly ignored his love of birds. Perhaps partly as a way of staying connected with him after he died, my wife and I started feeding birds. I didn’t know much about it, but I did remember him saying goldfinches like thistle seed. Wow, do I ever regret providing them with their favorite food! Because birds excrete some seeds undigested, I’ve been fighting thistles on our property for years. No matter how many I pull out or spray, the next spring the thistles come back as if to mock last year’s eradication efforts. “We’re still here!” they seem to snicker at me as they sway in the breeze.
Several years ago, during a time of prolonged stress in which fear kept sprouting in my mind, I wrote in my journal one morning: “Fear is thistle seed.” This simple image captured how my fearful thinking was prone to coming back, even multiplying, despite my best efforts to root it out. Because I, like my father, have become addicted to wordplay, as soon as I wrote “Fear is thistle seed” I also heard “this’ll seed” in my mind. I began wondering what the anxiety-provoking situation unfolding in my life might seed for the future:
- This’ll seed letting go of believing I can control life.
- This’ll seed a willingness to let my life change in unexpected ways.
- This’ll seed a deeper commitment to spiritual practice throughout each day.
This’ll seed compassion for all who feel afraid.
This’ll seed a renewed commitment to serving the greater good no matter where my life goes.
This’ll seed the necessity of living more and more from my large Self.
All through that period of life, whenever fear appeared, I was able to quickly label it as thistle seed. Then I could shift to rehearsing this’ll-seed thoughts like those above. It was surprisingly therapeutic.
I smile whenever I think of psychologists in the 1960s calling cognitive therapy the fourth wave of modern psychotherapy (after Freudian psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanistic therapies). In reality, the basic insight that underlies cognitive therapy has been around for at least 2,500 years. The first line of Stephen Levine’s translation of the Dhammapada (the collected sayings of the Buddha) is: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” About 700 years after Buddha, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
Cognitive therapy is not just for people who see a therapist. It’s as basic to mental health as brushing your teeth is to oral hygiene. The idea is that our habitual thoughts create our habitual emotions, which in turn create our habitual behaviors. I’ve taught cognitive therapy to many people over the years. The main impression I’ve had is how hard it is for most people to find new, healthier thoughts that lead them to more solid ground. It’s as if my patients are, as Einstein is purported to have said, trying to fix their problems with the same kind of thinking that created them. Unhelpful thoughts can appear to be The Truth when we’ve rehearsed them for a lifetime. Using logic to arrive at healthier thoughts in an attempt to weed out deeply rooted thought patterns can seem like my ineffective attempts to rid my yard of thistles.
Below is a sampling of troubling thoughts. Can you imagine a way to extend or play with each one to take it in a new and possibly therapeutic direction
Life is breaking me.
My life is boring.
I live with self-doubt.
I am anxious.
I want to start drinking heavily.
I’m not really broken, I just feel that way right now.
I can be grateful for my life, even when it’s a bit dull.
I can practice self-affirming statements to counter my self-doubt.
I am anxious, but that’s normal.
I really shouldn’t start drinking heavily! I need better coping mechanisms.
There’s nothing wrong with those reframes (as therapists call better thoughts). But let’s see where a more playful approach to words might lead us:
Life is breaking me ... like a bone that long ago healed wrong.
My life is boring ... deep beneath the surface of the mundane.
I live with self-doubt ... no more than a lone pine tree doing its evergreen thing in a deciduous forest.
“i” am anxious, but “I” am not (the large-I self can be aware of anxiety without being caught in it).
I want to start drinking heavily ... from the river of grace.
The wordplay here is distantly related to my father’s goofy punning. It often requires just extending a line in an unexpected way or changing the meaning of a word (as with “boring” in the example above). This subtler wordplay is not about lightening our mood or getting to laughter. It’s about getting to a moment of enlightenment that allows us to see ourselves and our lives in a new way.
My father seeded wordplay in me nearly every day of my early life. That seed has sprouted in surprisingly helpful ways in adult life. I hope reading this’ll seed a curiosity about the therapeutic potential of wordplay in your life, too!