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Antithetical thoughts are thoughts that are opposed to, or the antithesis of, other thoughts which the person prefers or which he /she intends to manifest in action.
If a person is contemplating the good things in life, then antithetical thoughts may arise and evoke ideas about the nastiness of life.
For example, if a man is being receptive to harmonious aspects of sexual desire, then when he sees a woman who is sexually attractive to him the word ‘ tart ’ may pop up in his consciousness – the pejorative word is the attempt to repudiate the sexual interest.
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In the view of Sigmund Freud, these kind of thoughts occur to everyone, but are most marked in neurosis or in people suffering from nervous exhaustion. When these thoughts are accentuated, they become the ‘voices’ of the schizophrenic mind.
From my mid-30s onwards I lost my familiar orientation to the world and, as a consequence, began the traditional soul-search that ascetics usually have to endure. Antithetical thoughts slowly increased in their intensity and frequency. By my early 40s they were causing me considerable distress. I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered that Freud had known about them.
Why are such thoughts so distressing? They cast doubt on the person's good intentions; they appear to suggest a seamier side to his character. Where do they come from? Freud postulated the existence of a ‘counter-will’ as the agency calling up these thoughts. It is a pity that he did not follow up this idea since it would have led him into a much more radical view of the subconscious mind. The counter-will is just the will within the identity that is currently subconscious, either the social identity of the person or his individual identity. (A person can orientate on his social relationships, or his sense of individuality. Each orientation can be considered as a separate identity). [¹]
from the identity that is currently being repressed.
They are obnoxious thoughts because that identity does not like being relegated to subconsciousness. The thoughts from the subconscious identity are attempting to make the person express that identity, to bring it into normal consciousness - this is the function of such thoughts.
If the individual identity is the identity which is repressed then the thoughts are derived from the hate mode of pride ; as such they focus on hateful thoughts about other people, which is what words like ‘ tart ’ indicate. These thoughts, by attempting to devalue social interests, are trying to make the social person develop his /her individuality. If the social identity is the identity which is repressed then the thoughts originate from guilt or jealousy ; usually they are hateful or denigrating thoughts about oneself. The purpose of these thoughts is to demean the individual identity and so make the individual more socially-centred. [²]
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Antithetical thoughts can be extremely prominent in forms of mental disorder such as schizophrenia. Here they are labelled the ‘ voices’. The schizophrenic person is attempting to create an individual identity ; so, for a man, his social identity has no value for him. Hence his obnoxious thoughts will concentrate on telling him that he is worthless as an individual and perhaps direct him to suicide (these themes are derived from guilt) ; or they will devalue whatever he can do as an individual (jealousy-based criticisms).
For example, during many periods of the tail-end of my self-analysis I had thoughts telling me that writing my books was useless since my ideas do not have anything of value – this disparagement denotes subconscious jealousy in self-pity mode.
Sometimes, however, the individual identity is not the central issue. The idea of justice may be central. Then the person may believe that people are persecuting him. His voices now tell him that other people are conspiring against him – so paranoia is generated. There may be an element of truth in the claims of these voices : this is what makes paranoia so difficult to handle. [³]
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For me, the most frustrating way that these thoughts affected me prior to my self-analysis was in my daily meditation in the morning. Fairly often, after doing yoga exercises, my mental processes would slow down. Then just as I would begin to expect some mental peace, to experience the quietness before the dawn, my ‘counter-will’ would call up distressful thoughts and ruin everything. The problem here was that I could easily switch into negative suggestion: I would begin to expect the antithetical thoughts, which guaranteed that they would appear. Then meditation would have to be abandoned for some time.
I do not visualise, so my meditations were ruined by thoughts. A person that I met obviously could visualise, so her meditations became ruined by disturbing visions.
Unpleasant visions are usually the visual counterpart to antithetical thoughts.
These visions are usually a visual expression of antithetical thoughts. Taking the parallel with thoughts, it is not what is seen that is important but what the vision symbolises. If the social identity is currently repressed (which it always is during meditation) then the unpleasant image will have the same effect as thoughts derived from guilt and jealousy – the person will feel threatened in some way. Whereas if the vision occurs during social activity, whilst the individual identity is subconscious, then the image may feature destructiveness aimed at other people.
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Unpleasant thoughts can figure prominently in a person with a religious mentality. They can also lead to a conversion experience. A man, in his individual identity, may be in desperation from intense and persistent antithetical thoughts. Because they arise from guilt and jealousy so they intensify a ‘guilty conscience’. He may try to flee from them.
If the person now escapes into a fundamentalist congregation then he switches identity to his social one. Since guilt and jealousy are no longer repressed so his guilty conscience ceases to dominate him, and it may even seem to fade completely. Now it is his individual identity that is repressed. When antithetical thoughts arise again they become focused on hating other people (instead of hating oneself). This switch in the way that hatred is directed becomes highly advantageous to him. It enables him to harmonise with the congregation. It enables him to be accepted by the other members. He has now proved his credentials: as a member of his sect he hates outsiders! 
If a religious man maintains his individual identity despite the regular occurrence of antithetical thoughts then he may find himself in the predicament that Martin Luther experienced: the agony of being driven almost mad by a guilty conscience when you do not know the reason for it. The person experiences relentless self-torment – he persecutes himself, crucifies himself. Persecutory guilt arises when the person seems to ‘deliberately’ recall an idea (the antithetical thought) which he knows is morally wrong. He can think of no other way to explain it than that he must be bad and deserving of punishment. Or perhaps he may ease his conscience by a belief that the problems of the world cannot be conquered (especially if they are sexual problems).
Such thoughts arise as a challenge to idealistic and moral effort. They have the effect of increasing both spiritual effort and the sense of doubt at the same time. The greater the sense of purity that the person has, the greater becomes the anxiety about the existence of such thoughts. Without a base of equanimity, or the practice of mindfulness, attempts at spiritual development may eventually come crashing down. The crash denotes that antithetical thoughts have destroyed self-confidence because of the production of doubt.
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The antithetical thoughts can be neutralised during conversation. The thoughts are associated with tension, and they occur when I am aloof from what the other person is saying to me. Aloofness allows a judgement on that person to occur. This is usually the antithetical thought. Then I get upset because in my ‘purity’ I should not have made such a thought. But when I am giving complete attention, these thoughts are impossible, because there is no space in which to make any judgement.
The skilful way of handling such thoughts is through the practice of mindfulness. In this practice the thoughts are noted for what they are and what they represent, but no value judgement is passed on them.
In this way the person learns in time to ignore them – they are an inevitable product of having a subconscious mind.
Antithetical thoughts can sometimes lead to good results. Because I did not experience enough love from mother during my childhood I subconsciously created the idea that I was not lovable. During my meditations I often practised the Buddhist idea of generating thoughts of loving kindness to everyone – this is an antithetical compensation.
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Antithetical thoughts produce their own themes in dreams. So I call such dreams antithetical dreams. These are always derogatory and persecutory: they denigrate my personal integrity or my sense of idealism. (Other dreams of conflict are produced by the process of internalisation  ).
I use a house as a dream symbol for the mind : the upper storey represents idealistic aspirations, the ground floor represents the worldly consciousness, and the basement represents the subconscious mind. For years during my 30s and 40s I had many dreams where I was living in a derelict house, or merely had a derelict house as part of the landscape. At those times I was focusing solely on forming my sense of individuality, by valuing my own mind and rejecting the traditional religious demand of ego-denial. I interpreted such dreams to mean that my repressed social identity was trying to persuade me that my personal integrity (as the centre of my existentialism) was worthless and was ruining my mind. The dream wanted to inculcate a sense of guilt in me.
In contrast, when I activated my idealism in a social way, such as imagining myself as a teacher who is helping people, my individual identity generated a dream that tried to convince me of the hollowness of such aspirations. Then I might dream of being a bank robber (or, more usually, three bank robbers) ; the symbolism was that I was trying to attain spiritual gold by counterfeit means. [The occurrence of three people (myself and two companions) in a dream usually indicates that the dream is a comment on my spiritual hopes].
Such dreams should be treated in the same way as antithetical thoughts.
The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.
[¹]. The idea of having two identities is introduced in the previous article, Confusion. A more detailed analysis is given in the article Two Identities, on my website The Subconscious Mind. 
[²]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page. 
[³]. There are articles on schizophrenia and on paranoia on my website Patterns of Confusion. 
. The process of conversion is described in the article The Conversion Experience. 
. An article on Internalisation is on my website Discover Your Mind.
For other kinds of conflict dreams, visit my website Patterns of Confusion. Read the articles : Depression and Autism, sub-section Internalisation of Emotions ; and Violence and Loss of Freedom, sub-section Violence in Dreams. Dreams which feature either paranoia or revenge are described in the article Destructiveness, sub-section Dreams of Conflict. 
Nyanaponika, Thera. The
Heart of Buddhist Meditation.
A good exposition of mindfulness, a technique of Buddhist meditation.
The articles in this section are :
Confusion - snags and pitfalls of the idealist ; beginning a new quest.
Antithetical Thoughts - voices and unpleasant thoughts.
Alienation - effects of living in a society which is spiritually poor ; stupor.
Justification - from old identities to new ones ; causality & motivation.
Character Transformation - from instability to stability to flexibility.
Reversal of Values - disjunctive states of mind ; ideal mother image.
Rites of Passage - escaping nihilism by using emotional rituals.
The copyright is mine, and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.
© 2002 Ian Heath
All Rights Reserved
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