Transform Delusional Thinking with Mental Jiu-Jitsu

After dinner, a pile of dirty dishes menacingly loom in the kitchen. I don’t want to wash them. Given my schedule and responsibilities however, now is the only time I have to wash them in the next few days. Feeling like I have to wash them now, I grudgingly start. I wash the dishes while feeling a low level of resentment, dread, longing for sleep, and stress. These feelings are subtle, off in the background, and easy to miss, yet they make the whole chore miserable and I can’t wait until its done.

For most of us, the story ends there. We do the dishes in misery and then move on to the next activity. For those of us committed to making every moment an opportunity to awaken, this is just the beginning.

Mindfulness, Contemplation, and the Art of Dish Washing

Noticing the suffering I experience, I take a conscious breath and become mindful. Once mindful, I investigate my situation and challenge my thoughts. My thoughts tell me, “I don’t want to wash the dishes.” Is this true? If it is true, then why am I washing them? Clearly there is an inner conflict: part of me wants to wash the dishes and another part of me does not. Is this a conflict between my true self and my ego?

Mindfully feeling into my experience, this hypothesis seem accurate. Here is why: Given my broader life situation, washing the dishes right now makes logical, rational sense. The decision to wash the dishes at this time feels skillful and wise. Therefore, my true self prioritized washing the dishes right now, so I wash the dishes.

What does the false, egoic self think? When I mindfully noticed the stories in my head, I found these thoughts: “I don’t want to wash the dishes. I am too tired to wash the dishes. I should be in bed sleeping right now. I didn’t make all these dirty dishes. Someone else should wash them! Why am I stuck with them?” All of these stories contain one or more of the delusions of aversion, craving, self-view, and fixed-view. When I believe these egoic stories, I feel resentment, wanting, anger, and dread. Those were the emotions I had been feeing. Thus, it is my ego, which consists entirely of conditioned, impersonal, delusional stories, that does not want to do the dishes.

This insight that my true self and egoic self are in conflict, inspires another insight: I mistook the actual source of my suffering! Originally, I thought that washing the dishes was the source of my suffering. Now it seems obvious that the delusional stories in my head about washing the dishes are the actual source of suffering. I can tell this through my own experience. When I mindfully watch these stories, knowing they are merely “passing, impersonal, delusional, and temporary thoughts,” the unpleasant feelings subside and I feel more peace and ease.

Finally, since I am washing the dishes, wouldn’t I rather wash them with a sense of peace and joy rather than resentment and hatred? Of course! How do I do this? By doing the dishes mindfully as an act of love. How is doing the dishes an act of love? I do them for the benefit and welfare of my roommates and me so we can have a clean kitchen when we want to make or eat a meal. I also do these dishes for my own liberation! Look at how much insight and wisdom I have experienced over the past few minutes. Doing the dishes mindfully, with a sense of peace and ease, as the watcher of my experience helps me awaken and live a more peaceful and loving life.

These wise reflections cause peace, ease, and joy to arise as I do the dishes. Doing the dishes now seem like a loving, exciting, and challenging adventure.

It is challenging because I feel an unpleasant tiredness. These unpleasant sensations are probably triggering this flurry of delusional thoughts. Thus, as I wash the dishes, I must be vigilant as the watcher of my thoughts, and see the thoughts clearly as the impersonal, delusional, and temporary visitors to the mind that they are. Otherwise, the mind mistakes them to be the truth, and I suffer as I had been doing.

Alternately, I can use this time to reflect on all that I am grateful for: “Thank you life for the energy to do the dishes even when I am tired. Thank you for the wisdom to see and experience the source of my suffering and for showing me how I can come out of my suffering. Thank you for blessing me with a safe home to live in and for having dishes to clean! Thank you for providing healthy food to eat off those dishes!” And so on. By consciously generating thoughts of appreciation, these thoughts take up the mental space previously occupied by the spontaneously arising delusional thoughts.

Now I wash the dishes peacefully and joyfully as a meditation and an act of love for myself and all life.

Contemplation and Inquiry

This example shows how to use mindful contemplation and inquiry to end your suffering. Contemplation and inquiry have long been a part of all wisdom traditions. We must challenge our disturbing thoughts if we ever hope to experience the falsehood, suffering, and unskillfulness in them. By mindfully experiencing the unskillfulness, suffering, and falsehood of our egoic thoughts, we stop believing them, and the suffering they generated ends.

Mental Jiu-Jitsu is an easy-to-learn process that encourages contemplation and inquiry. It’s basic structure provides a systemic method that helps us dissect our delusional stories, see them from various perspectives, and respond to them from a wise and rational view. In this way, Mental Jiu-Jitsu helps us investigate, challenge, and expose delusional thinking, and respond to it in a kind and honest manner.

Mental Jiu-Jitsu is a slightly modified version of the Triple-Column Technique. The Triple-Column Technique was popularized by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Psychologist Dr. David Burns in his best selling book, Feeling Good: The Clinically Proven Drug-Free Treatment for Depression. Dr. Burns taught this technique to people suffering from depression to help them stop believing the distorted thinking that caused their depression. Regularly practicing Mental Jiu-Jitsu will radically speed your ability to end your own suffering and unskillfulness.

This article explains how to do Mental Jiu-Jitsu so you can benefit from this powerful method of inquiry. This article also walks you though an example so you can see how it works, and gives you a few tips to aid you in getting the most out of this technique. The best way to learn Mental Jiu-Jitsu is by practicing it. The more you practice it, the easier it will become.

The Purpose of Mental Jiu-Jitsu

The purpose of Mental Jiu-Jitsu is to investigate, challenge, and expose the falsehood, needless suffering, and unskillfulness of delusional thinking, while substituting delusional thoughts with truthful, kind, and wise thoughts.

Mentally jiu-jitsu any thought that arises that cause an emotion disturbance. Mental Jiu-Jitsu works like this: first, note the delusional thought. Second; note the delusion, suffering, and unskillfulness of the thought. Third, respond to the delusional thought with truthful, kind, and skillful thoughts.

Column One: Write Disturbing Thoughts Down

When you first start doing Mental Jiu-Jitsu, it is best to do it as a journal activity. Delusional thoughts are very wily, shrewd, slippery, and confusing. The ego will offer nonstop rationalizations and justifications for these delusional thoughts that will keep your head spinning. By writing disturbing thoughts down, you can focus on unraveling one delusional storyline at a time.

In your journal, create three columns. In the first column, write down the disturbing thoughts in your head. You can group the thoughts in whatever way makes the most sense to you. Some sentences will be a complete thought, others may require paragraphs of writing to get the whole storyline down.

Column Two: Reflect on the Falsehood, Suffering, and Unskillfulness of Disturbing Thoughts

In the second column, reflect on all of the ways that thoughts in column one do not serve you. You can do this by identifying the falsehood, the suffering, and the unskillfulness that result when you believe the thought.

Start by identifying all of the delusions you see in the thought. The six main delusions include pasting, futuring, craving, aversion, fixed-view, and self-view. Look for these delusions in your story and try to identify which ones are at work. By seeing how these stories lie, you will be inspired to stop believing them.

Then list all of the disturbing emotions that arise when you believe that thought. Do you feel stress, anxiety, fear, hatred, anger, envy, arrogance, and so on? Mindfully reflect on or feel the suffering you feel when you believe this delusional story. By experiencing how these stories cause you to suffer when you believe them, you will be inspired to stop believing them.

Finally, mindfully reflect on specific incidents where you believed these story lines and felt their associated emotions. Notice the unskillful way these thoughts caused you to behave. How did these thoughts, when believed, cause you to treat yourself and others? Write it down. As you do this, mindfully feel and experience how these delusional thoughts do not serve you. This will help you see the unskillfulness in these thoughts, which will help you stop believing them.

Column Three: Write a Rational Response

In the third column, write a kind and reasonable response to thoughts in the first column. When you believe these responses, they will feel calm, peaceful, and kind in the body. These thoughts will connect you with your inner peace, kindness, compassion, and/or joy. That’s how you know the thoughts are truthful, skillful, and wise in this situation.

This third column gives you a ready-made wise and loving response to the delusional story when it arises again in the future. This response will make you less likely to be confused and ensnared by its lies, suffering, and unskillfulness in the future. The response will help you remain grounded in truth, love, and wisdom.

Stay Mindful for Disturbing Situations and What Thoughts and Stories Arise During Them

Let’s return to the dishes example from above to help explain how it works.

As I move through my days, I set an intention to notice whenever I feel stress or other disturbing emotions. One night, before washing the dishes, I feel stress, resentment, and wanting arise. Feeling this suffering, I mindfully investigate my thoughts to see what is being thought.

I notice the following thought: “I don’t want to do the dishes,” If I am able, I take out my journal right then and there, and I write these thoughts down to Mental Jiu-Jitsu them either now, or at a later time. I also take mentally note of the specifics of the situation: it’s late at night. There are lots of dishes to do. I feel sensations of tiredness.

There are other stories in the mind such as “I would rather be sleeping.” But, for simplicity’s sake, I choose to address these stories one at a time.

In column one, I write down the disturbing thought, “I don’t want to do the dishes.”

Column Two: Identify the Delusions, Suffering, and Unskillfulness in the Thought

In column two, I identify the delusions, the suffering, and the unskillfulness in the thought. After taking a few conscious breaths to connect with my inner peace, I calmly reflect on the statement “I don’t want to do the dishes.”

In the article’s introduction, I wrote about how the inner conflict between my thoughts and actions alerted me to the fact that my ego and true selves were clashing. I won’t reiterate that inner investigation here, but move on to identifying the delusions contained in the thought.

Doing this, I see it contains the delusion of aversion. It clearly resists the reality of the situation. This aversion makes me feel like not washing the dishes, or, if I go ahead and wash them anyway, feel stress, anxiety, and other unpleasant feelings while washing them.

I take another conscious breath, and look at the statement again to see if it contains any other delusions. I see it contains a storyline of self. “I” don’t want to do the dishes. That is the delusion of self-view. When I believe this storyline, I feel a heavy sense of burden, responsibility, and additional stress.

But who or what am I? Having looked at this question for some time, the most accurate answer is “I don’t know.” Since I don’t have full control over the body, it makes little sense to consider the body “me” or “mine.” I live more peacefully when I view the body as conditioned, impersonal nature, and think of myself as the “witnessing presence” that calmly, mindfully, and acceptingly observes the inner and outer world of the body. Of course, that witnessing presence is not me either, as it goes away when I enter deep, dreamless sleep. But in this situation, this view of “me as the mindful witness” serves me well enough, and allows me to be more skillful.

I take yet another conscious breath, and look at the statement for other delusions. When this thought occurs before I do the dishes, that is “futuring.” When I mistake these words to be the truth, that is “fixed-view.” That seems to be all of them. This simple sentence contains four major delusions.

In the second column, I list the delusions, writing: “Delusions: Aversion, Self-View, Futuring, Fixed-view.” Then I write the emotions they cause me to suffer: “Suffering: Stress, anxiety, resentment, anger, and a heavy sense of burden and responsibility.” Finally, I write down how this thought and feeling causes me to behave. “Unskillfulness: When I believe this delusional thought, I either don’t do the dishes, and live with stress about needing to get them done, or I suffer stress, anxiety, and a heavy sense of burden while washing them.”

As I reflect on my answer in column two, I mindfully feel and experience this situation so I get really clear on how this delusional thought needlessly causes suffering.

Column Three: Responding with Truth, Love, and Wisdom

Now I am ready for column three. Column three is where I respond to the delusion with rational thoughts. Taking a conscious breath, and connecting to my inner peace, I ask into my inner silence, “How can I respond to this delusion with kindness, truth, and skill?” Then, without forcing an answer, I patiently wait to see what thoughts arise.

As thoughts arise I turn them over in my head. I restate them and feel what they feel like when I believe them. If these thoughts cause any emotional stress in the body, then I let them go. On the other hand, if I believe them and I still feel peace, calmness, joy, and/or warm-heartedness, then I realize this thought has arisen from my deeper, true self, and write it down in column three.

Through this process, here is what came up for me: “My ego does not want to wash the dishes. If I am washing the dishes, it is because my true self has prioritized washing the dishes now. Thus, I do want to wash the dishes. Moreover, I want to wash the dishes with peace and joy if possible. My roommates and I prefer to have a clean kitchen when it is time to prepare our meals. Doing the dishes helps keep the kitchen clean. When I am mindful that washing the dishes is my current priority and I do them as an act of love for myself and others, cleaning the dishes becomes a pleasant, peaceful, and sometimes and even joyful meditation. I enjoy doing the dishes.”

I test the truth and wisdom of what I wrote by reading it over, and feeling how it feels to believe what I’ve written. If I can believe it while remaining connected to my inner peace kindness, and calmness, then it is a good answer. If any part triggers an emotion to arise, then I cut it out or modify it.

When I review what I wrote, everything feels truthful except for the last sentence, “I enjoy doing the dishes.” Something about that sentence feels forced and inauthentic. After asking my inner peace why, I come up with a modification that feels right, “When I do the dishes as a loving meditation, I enjoy doing the dishes.”

This response is calm, reasonable, factual, honest, and kind. It gives me guidance on how to relate to dish washing so I can feel peace and even joy as I do them. This response shows a lot of love and respect for myself and my wellbeing. When I think these thoughts, I feel peaceful, calm, and motivated to do the dishes when it is time to do the dishes.

How It Looks

This is what it looks like in my journal:

Mental Jiu-Jitsu Graphic.JPG

Mental Alchemy

Mental Jiu-Jitsu is a powerful technique that allows you to reprogram your mind and transform delusional thoughts into kind and loving thoughts.

The martial art of jiu-jitsu teaches its practitioners to use their opponents’ strength against them. In this way, jiu-jitsu masters can defeat much stronger and bigger opponents. The agape arsenal technique of Mental Jiu-Jitsu works similarly.

One of the egoic mind’s biggest strengths is its relentless persistence. When we have a delusional thought or story in our head, the mind replays it over and over and over again applying the story to different people and situations. Through Mental Jiu-Jitsu we turn this strength of the ego into our advantage.

When you do Mental Jiu-Jitsu, you prepare kind, loving, and rational responses to these repetitive, delusional thoughts that the mind churns up. Review your rational response as often as necessary to remember it. Then whenever this delusion arises, calmly talk back to it with your rational response. If you do this, then the more the ego says this delusion, the faster you retrain the mind to be rational, loving, and skillful. In this way, you use one of the ego’s greatest strengths to overcome the ego.

Mental Jiu-Jitsu performs an alchemy of the mind. The “lead” of your delusional thoughts transform into the “gold” of rational, loving, and wise thoughts.

Top Tips

Although Mental Jiu-Jitsu is best learned by doing it, here are 10 tips that will help guide you as you try it out.

1. Work with the thoughts that most disturb you.

Work with disturbing thoughts that arise during disturbing situations. This is both a natural place to begin, and where you will find the most benefit from this technique.

As we explore our inner life, it is natural to start by working with those feelings that are most gross, observable, and easy to work with. Thankfully, as we work with what is gross, we develop the skills we need to work with what is more subtle. This leads us to feel and work with more subtle, faint, and challenging feelings. The fact that the more we walk this mindfulness path, the further we are able to go, is one of the wonderful and beautiful aspects of this path.

2. Do Mental Jiu-Jitsu as a form of meditation.

While doing Mental Jiu-Jitsu, take as many mini-meditations as you need to, as often as you like, to ground your awareness in your inner sense of peace, contentment, and joy. Feeling your inner peace will help you access your inner wisdom and remain mindful.

3. Commit to be as real, honest, and truthful with yourself as possible.

Do this exercise for your own liberation, not to impress others, or to prove anything. To not censor yourself, write with the understanding that no one will ever read what you are writing.

Write disturbing thoughts down just as they appear in your head. As you write them down, they may seem petty, mean, or embarrassing. That’s fine. Keep writing them down as they appeared. Don’t take these thoughts personally. Remember, the thoughts in your head were put there by forces and circumstances beyond your control, so there is no need to take them personally, identify with them, or be ashamed by them.

This honesty and realness will help Mental Jiu-Jitsu better serve you.

4. Create a slogan that summarizes your kind and honest response.

As you do Mental Jiu-Jitsu, you may notice that your kind and rational responses, in an effort to be more accurate and nuanced than the delusional thought, often contain a lot more words. That is wonderful. However, in order to calmly and lovingly talk back to the repetitive delusional thoughts, it may be helpful to capture your response into short slogan that represents, for you, the meaning behind all of those words.

Returning to my example, I could summarize my response with the slogan, “When I wash the dishes as a loving meditation, I enjoy washing the dishes.”

Now, when the conditioned thought of “I don’t want to wash the dishes” arises, I mindfully see this thought and calmly respond, “When I wash the dishes as a loving meditation, I enjoy washing the dishes.” This short slogan says it all. It reminds me of the lie, suffering, and unskillfulness of the “I don’t want to…” thought. It reminds me to wash the dishes an act of love, connected to my inner peace and joy. It reminds me to wash the dishes as the “watcher” or “knower,” rather than identifying with the body that is doing the work. These words point me back to truth and love and help guide me out of the confusion, entanglement, and hypnotizing spell of this delusion.

Remembering our slogans and the wisdom behind them may not always bring us immediately to a place of peace and serenity. Still, every time we use them, they help bring more mindfulness into our life. This mindfulness, even if unsuccessful at changing our mental state, serves to weaken and erode our conditioned and delusional thinking which is the source of our suffering and unskillfulness.

5. Be prepared for the profusion of delusional thoughts.

As we try to nail down one delusional thought and investigate it through Mental Jiu-Jitsu, the ego may rush to its aid with lots of other delusional thoughts. Wonderful! Write them down in column one and mentally jiu-jitsu them too. Don’t let these thoughts confuse you or distract you from dealing with each thought one at a time.

The ego likes to keep us unbalanced, confused, and distracted with a profusion of rationalizations and justifications in support of the deluded thoughts. These swirling thoughts often prevent us from doing the thoughtful inquiry necessary to get to the truth. By writing it all down, and addressing each delusional thought or story one-by-one, we thwart this egoic strategy that tries to keep us lost in the dark.

6. Mentally jiu-jitsu all delusional thoughts.

My example of “I don’t want to do the dishes,” may seem like pretty small potatoes. That’s fine. As I mentioned before, work with whatever thoughts most disturb you. However, that does not mean that you should ignore the more subtle and less disturbing delusions. Unraveling delusion is like unraveling a sweater: You pull on one loose yarn and the whole thing starts to unravel.

In my experience, this delusional thought of “I don’t want to…” arises in various arenas in my life. It shows up before and during writing, teaching, meditating, weeding, mowing the lawn, and many other activities that I do that make up the bulk of my waking activities.

By learning how to kindly, truthfully, and skillfully address the delusional thought of “I don’t want to do the dishes,” I am better prepared to address this delusion in all of the other arenas of my life as well. It’s not hard to adapt my rational response slogan to these other activities: “When I write as a loving meditation, I enjoy writing.” “When I teach as a loving meditation, I enjoy teaching.” “When I weed the garden as a loving meditation, I enjoy weeding.” And so on.

Thus, don’t ignore a delusion because it seems like “not a big deal.” That is one way delusion maintains its grip on you.

7. Write down disturbing thoughts as they arise.

If you find it difficult remembering your disturbing thoughts, then keep an index card and writing utensil handy at all times. As a disturbing thought arises, write it down, along with a bit of the situation you are experiencing to help you bring the situation to mind. Then, the next time you journal, you will have plenty of thoughts to mentally jiu-jitsu.

8. You learn how to do Mental Jiu-Jitsu by doing Mental Jiu-Jitsu.

Maybe you feeling overwhelmed, doubtful of your ability to do this, frightened that you will do it wrong, or confused about how to generate a rational, kind response? That is to be expected. The habit pattern of the ego is to generate aversion before we try something new.

In response to this aversion, note it, feel it, and silently offer yourself compassion with some kind and soothing words: “The way out of suffering is through. May I have the courage to feel and make peace with these unpleasant emotions of fear, confusion, and overwhelm, that I may respond to them with love and skillfulness.” Then move forward skillfully by doing your best.

As with most things, you learn how to do Mental Jiu-Jitsu by doing it. As with any technique, the longer you use it, the more effectively you can do it.

We don’t expect to become a black belt in the martial art of jiu-jitsu on the first day of class. Yet, through regular classes and practice, we gain skills, understanding, and wisdom. Over time we progress from a white belt, to a blue belt, and so on.

The same is true with Mental Jiu-Jitsu. The more you practice it and work with it, the easier and more proficient in it you will become. Dr. David Burns says, “As you work at the triple-column technique [Mental Jiu-Jitsu] for fifteen minutes every day over a period of a month or two, you will find it gets easier and easier.” You may balk at this suggestion, but Dr. Burns recommends this to severely depressed individuals desperate to end their suffering. He recommends they spend time with this technique, because when regularly implemented, it rapidly helps improve the way we think, feel, and behave.

9. Good enough “rational responses” are fine to start with.

For now, don’t worry about obtaining the best, most wise, most truthful rational responses to delusional thoughts. Be satisfied with answers that are real, meaningful, and helpful to you now. That is wonderful enough.

If your rational response brings you more peace, then it is good enough. It may not be the absolute truth, but it is more truthful, and that is helpful. As you walk your mindfulness path, your responses may evolve and go into deeper levels of wisdom. As you go deeper into that wisdom, your answers may continue to evolve.

Sometimes you may not get a rational response to a delusional thought right away. Be patient with the process. It may take a few minutes, days, or weeks before you get a response that comes from your inner wisdom.

If you are still struggling, ask a close friend for their input. Verify their advice by how their ideas feel in your body when you believe them. In this way you are still using your inner wisdom to guide you.

10. Combine this technique with your slogan work.

Mental Jiu-Jitsu can work with any slogan that works to oppose a specific delusion, all delusions, or that encourages mindfulness of thoughts. When you read the slogan in the morning, set an intention to be mindful of disturbing thoughts and write them down as soon as possible to mentally jiu-jitsu them when you next journal.

Here are some slogans that could work well with Mental Jiu-Jitsu:

  • May I love myself no matter what. (Works with all delusions)

  • I love you, keep going. (Said to yourself)

  • There is no such thing as a true thought. (Fixed-view)

  • The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. (Fixed-view)

  • The map is not the terrain (Fixed-View)

  • This, too, will pass. (Futuring)

  • People who hurt others are hurting. (Aversion)

  • If it’s not kind, it’s not true. (Aversion)

  • The past cannot harm me. (Pasting)

  • True joy comes from within. (Greed)

  • Inner love is the only love I need. (Greed)

  • Not me, not mine. (Self-view)


In summary, use Mental Jiu-Jitsu to respond to any thoughts that cause you to feel disturbed when you believe them.

Mental Jiu-Jitsu is a process of inquiry that helps your mind and body let go of delusional thoughts, and allow you to come out of your suffering and unskillfulness.

To summarize Mental Jiu-Jitsu, you let mental or emotional disturbances in the body help you realize when you are believing a delusion. Then you mindfully look at the thoughts you are believing and write them down in column one. In column two, you note all of the delusions contained in the thought, all of the afflictive emotions the thought causes you to feel, and all of the unskillful reactions the thought spurs you to do. Then in the final column you write down a kind and rational response to the delusional thought. Using your body, you verify that your response is truthful and loving because when you believe your response, you feel peaceful, calm, kind, and possibly even joyful.

The whole process feels like a peaceful, mindful meditation. Take as many conscious breaths as you need to while doing it to maintain this calm, meditative attitude.

Then whenever that delusional thought arises, we calmly remember our kind, truthful response to it. In this way, we use the ego’s power against itself. The more the egoic thought arises, the more we remember how false, painful, and unskillful the delusional thought is and how to view the situations with love, truth, and wisdom. Through repetition, the mind is retrained.

May you all have much success with Mental Jiu-Jitsu! May you all use Mental Jiu-Jitsu to transform the “lead” of delusional thinking, into the “gold” of truth, wisdom, and love.