HomedotMagisDiscernmentMinding Our Thought Patterns

Minding Our Thought Patterns

thought - abstract image of woman's brain and idea bulbs - image by chenspec from Pixabay

In St. Ignatius’s second set of rules for discernment—the rules pertaining to more subtle discernment, what we might call advanced discernment—he addresses, in rules 5 and 6, how we can respond to our own processes of thought.

Ignatius’s Experience

Ignatius had some experience with this. During his many months at Manresa, he was afflicted by guilt over past sins, to the point that he felt unable to escape his constant bad memories. The story is more complex than what we need to go into here, but we know from his autobiography that he had wrestled with a mind that tormented him, for a rather extended period of time.

He considered himself delivered of this by an act of grace; he was helped somewhat by his confessor and supported by other friends, but his deliverance seemed a direct act of God. We don’t doubt this, but rules 5 and 6 suggest to me that Ignatius had other experiences that invited him to explore what went on in his head when he went through a patch of spiritual darkness.

Rule 5 instructs the person to “note well the course of the thoughts, and if the beginning, middle, and end is all good,” then these thoughts have been inspired by the good spirit. If it does not end well, if it “disquiets or disturbs the soul,” then even the genesis of this process is suspect.

Rule 6 tells the person who has been tempted or led astray to look back over the progression of thoughts and see where things turned.

Remember that Ignatius was dealing with people who wanted to do God’s will, whose aim was to do good in the world. This is why these rules are part of advanced discernment. We’re no longer dealing with choosing between obvious good and evil. We are beginning with good intentions. We are wanting all the right things. But still, it goes wrong. Ignatius himself had various intentions that never worked out, and so he was highly interested in assessing his own processes. And, given his history of scrupulosity—an obsession with his own sins—he wanted to understand how his own mind worked so that he could sense when he was most likely to be tempted or misled.

Patterns in Our Lives

Most of us experience thought patterns that are not good for us. The obvious example is addiction, a pattern of thoughts and impulses that gets locked in and prevents our freedom. We now understand physiological causes as well, and we see addiction as more than just mental and emotional. We can’t deny, though, the significant role that thoughts play. However, all of us, with or without addiction, experience unhealthy thought processes.

For me, judging others is a frequent pattern. When I first notice that I have a negative reaction to someone, I can usually trace the origins of it: certain physical characteristics I’ve been conditioned to dislike; a quality of outgoingness that makes me uncomfortable; or a similarity to someone from my past who hurt me. The key is for me to stop and ask myself, When did I begin to feel negative? If I don’t do this, I will begin to assume in this person motives or agendas that are figments of my imagination. I will be reacting to a person who doesn’t even exist.

Deteriorating Thoughts

Some interactions deteriorate because we don’t recognize where our mind is taking us. Perhaps I set out to help a friend with some housework, because she’s been immobilized with a broken foot. It starts off well until I discover that the state of the house is longer-term than my friend’s current situation explains; she’s never kept it very clean, and she’s totally disorganized. I ask if she’d like me to clean out a couple of shelves; she says, Sure, go ahead. The more I work, the more indignant I become, because this person does not share my enthusiasm for order and cleanliness. Three hours later, I am deep into a task that has grown, and I’m resenting this friend and feeling quite put upon. Where did this begin to go wrong? When I passed judgment on this friend’s standards that were different from mine. I went to a place of comparing my ways to her ways and insisting (internally) that mine were better. That’s where the shift happened.

The Holy Spirit does not threaten us or rush us.

The most devious thought patterns are not about others at all. Back when I was in music school, I would go to the practice room and begin working on my piano skills. When I got to the point in a piece that was too difficult to play well, my thoughts would jump to: I do not have nearly as much skill as other music majors; I’m already behind and will never catch up. The practicing would become more frustrating, and my mind and heart would become more frantic and depressed, until I stopped practicing altogether and decided that it was time for a coffee break. Granted, I was behind other music majors, and I would never become a performer on stage. But I had never felt called to that life anyway, and if my own thoughts had not sabotaged my piano practice—and this happened almost every day—I would have at least enjoyed the growth I did experience, and the practicing would have been much more productive. I can look back and see that thought process, but I did not recognize it then. It was a level of discernment I had not yet learned.

Impatience and Fear

My discernment now has more to do with the thought patterns that lead me to become impatient with or resentful of my husband, or the subtle ideas that disrupt my prayer. How many of us give up on prayer because of thought patterns such as: I don’t even know how this works, or, Given my angry outburst this morning, I really have no business asking God for anything.

Often our thought patterns lead us to a bad place because of fear. I nearly always take it as a bad sign when I start thinking that I must do something right now, or else. Another bad sign is feeling that I’ve been backed into a corner. Choices made while in such a frame of mind are bound to go wrong. The Holy Spirit does not threaten us or rush us. There is nothing coercive about God’s dealing with us. When we feel coerced, desperate, or out of time, these states of mind should raise red flags for us.

Reflective Exercise

I encourage you to reflect on a time when you began with the best intentions, but the end result was not so good. Try to recall your thought process. Recall, too, your emotions. What was going on inside you that caused things to turn in an unhealthy direction?

Sometimes, this kind of discernment is best done with a spiritual companion. Ignatius relied on his confessor; we have spiritual directors, pastoral counselors, and close friends. We also have, of course, our own daily conversations with God, who loves us through everything.

Image by BD Hypno Plus, found via Pixabay.

Vinita Hampton Wright
Vinita Hampton Wrighthttp://www.loyolapress.com/authors/vinita-hampton-wright
Vinita Hampton Wright edited books for 32 years, retiring in 2021. She has written various fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Dwelling Places and spirituality books Days of Deepening Friendship, The Art of Spiritual Writing, Small Simple Ways: An Ignatian Daybook for Healthy Spiritual Living, and, most recently, Set the World on Fire: A 4-Week Personal Retreat with the Female Doctors of the Church. Vinita is a spiritual director and continues to facilitate retreats and write fiction and nonfiction. She lives with her husband, two dogs, and a cat in Springdale, Arkansas.


  1. Carol, I apologize for not checking comments earlier and seeing what you posted. Your situation is not uncommon, and I feel bad for your years of suffering and feeling unfulfilled. Our choices do bring limits along with the opportunities. But I can hear in your words the wisdom that comes from years of walking with Jesus, who will continue to walk alongside you and work within you. I’m grateful that you recognize the need for self-compassion. We can look back and wish we’d made other choices. But life happens to us when we are in all sorts of stages of understanding and of woundedness. The grace, however, is relentless because God’s love is relentless. I pray that you feel this grace and love–in the present moment–and resist worries over the moments to follow. Peace to you.

  2. These reflections only go to show how we are all so much struggling with the same issues. So comforting that we are not alone and can help each other.

  3. Vinita, after reading this reflection, it calls to me to sit with it over and over, praying over each re-reading. I’m struggling with regret about the marriage I chose 50 years ago. Fear obstructed my life growth which could have led to a much different life. The recurring thought I hear is: “I’ve thrown away my life, my chance at finding myself before considering a new relationship, and I harmed my children.” Now with a husband who had serious health issues, I question whether or not I have the compassion and charity to care for him when I received so little from him through the years. I call up self-compassion to allow myself to process these feelings. It will take time. My comfort is the listening heart of My Savior who nourishes me along this walk. Thank you for all you create for me. ~ CB

  4. This reflection really hit home. I thank you Vinita for your own concrete examples to which I can very much relate. Now, to begin recognizing where there Spirit is leading me, and if indeed it is the Holy Spirit! Blessings to you, and many thanks

  5. Reading one of the replies stands out for me at the moment with the line ” especially when challenges occur.
    Right now I am experiencing a challenge of my own ie a bout of vertigo and even though it is better than it was, my imagination is coming up with all scary thoughts of why it happened.
    I tell Jesus I place my trust in him but know at the moment this is ” lip service” for surely if I trusted as I ought, I would’nt be feeling scared and worried.

    Prayers please.

    VInita, I so appreciate your posts and find them so relatable.
    The paragraph when you mention your husband so rings a bell as I had such a situation 2 weeks ago before going to Mass. Thankfully, I did still go to church and Holy Communion.

    Bes wishes x

  6. Thank You so much to the author for sharing such insightful advice and clear instructions promoting more positive reflection on our unique thought processing patterns !
    GBYAAY AMBreen

  7. Thank you so much for this reflection. I’ve often experienced things starting off well but going astray and I never knew why. I just blamed myself for being a horrible person. The more often this happened the more convinced I became that I am a selfish, lazy person. This is just the tool I need to begin to break the pattern.

    • So true, Marian! The “enemy of human nature” wants us to write ourselves off as lazy, selfish, etc. St. Ignatius encourages us to “act against” these crippling inclinations, and reviewing thought processes can help with that. Grace and peace to you!

  8. Thanks Vinita; this is a timely reflection for me, as I’m dealing with a bout of mild depression. Healthy thinking is an important aspect of working with this, and that means being aware of the content and quality of my thoughts. Discernment or its equivalent is an important tool, if I can put it like that. Wait, I’d rather say that discernment is a capacity that I’m using to help manage my thoughts and feelings during this down time.

    • Thanks for posting, Jeff. Depression really adds to the layers of confusion, doesn’t it? I’m a veteran myself, which is one reason this topic is close to my heart. Blessings on your continued healing and self-knowledge.

  9. Thanks, Vinita, these are deeply thoughtful and positive processes. It can be helpful to be aware of our reactions and thought patterns, most especially when we are in a situation where challenges present themselves. For whatever reason, when reading this article, I thought of the fictional character Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Finch is probably one of the most revered characters of fiction because of his stance in defending a vulnerable person against a false charge. A close reading of his character in the novel though reveals idiosyncrasies which may cause some to question his thought patterns and others to simply delight in his difference. I believe God delights in our differences.

  10. Wow!

    This has got to be one of the most direct and right-to-the-point posts I’ve read. It is so clear that I have read it several times in order to relish it.

    Thank you. It is extremely helpful and I will be using it as a guide.

    Know that I am very grateful for you, your words and the gift of your writings.

    Many blessings!


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