Cognitive Reframing: 5 Steps To Mastery

I recall once marveling at the innocence and splendor of a nearby creek.

Not putting much thought into the examination, I simply reflected on its beauty, it’s tranquility and in the same vein, it’s unremitting power – for it never ceases.

In a rare moment of clarity, I realized I was no longer purely reflecting on the concept of a creek; it instead became richly nuanced and jam-packed with various meanings which I attached to it.

What I found so awe-striking was not the creek but my interpretation of the creek.

I could have easily seen the gnats, the mud, the pesky critters which thrive in its ecosystem and loathed its very existence. But that was not what I remember…

I realized that the awe I was experiencing was not in the event, the circumstances or the thing, but the concept and the interpretation I attached to it.

This is the raw power of interpretation…

The Art of Interpretation

In the Buddhist Canon, the art form of speech is set within a parameter of five filters, it reads:

Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five? It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

I will borrow from this passage yet rather than speech as the centerpiece I will utilize the five filters for mastering interpretation and reframing. They are as follows:

  1. Time
  2. Truth
  3. Affections
  4. Beneficial
  5. Good-Will




It should come as no surprise that we interpret current events by our past experiences. We do not come to our current situation as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, awaiting the divine strokes of the heavenly brush to paint new revelation and understanding in our lives.

Instead, we come to our contemporary encounters fully loaded with myriad preexisting beliefs, biases, and assumptions. To such an extent that understanding life objectivity is outrageously impossible.

In a way, we are all pragmatists, truth for us is simply what has worked. If one is racist it is because at one point that worked for them, be it as a function for subculture cohesion or an endogenous opiate system rewarding avoidance, it worked (it felt and appeared to be truthful).

If one is the exact opposite and loves all people, it’s because historically this has worked for them (once more felt and appeared to be truthful based upon their life experience).

But just because it may have worked then does not mean it will work now. Further, we must challenge our pragmatic thought-processes, just because something works does not mean it’s truthful and right – all of history attests to this concept. Let us not repeat the same mistakes our ancestors did.

Let me be a bit more nuanced. If I grew up in an abusive home, I may naturally interpret the world around me as hostile and people as untrustworthy, out for themselves Cretans.

Adopting this mindset in the past may have assisted in self-preservation but now, as an adult, it is destroying my ability to have a real intimate relationship with another human being and is hacking my life quality to non-existence. Asking questions such as:

  • Is my emotional response appropriate for the situation or is it due to an interpretation developed by past experiences?
  • Am I seeing the present right now or am I injecting the past into the present?
  • How can their past experience (assuming your response is due to another’s behavior) caused them to behave the way they do? What are the potential reasons for their programming?
  • Does this event remind me of any person, place, or thing from my past?

“Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression, but say, “Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me try you.”


I’m sure you can draw up much of your own. This filter is situated in time, we want to make sure, that our interpretation is time appropriate, as Aristotle once noted, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”


I’m going to define truth as freedom, and not in the capitalist sense of manufacturing and distribution but in terms of desire. Epictetus majestically captured this concept,

Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand, take a portion of it politely. It passes on; do not detain it. Or it has not come to you yet; do not project your desire to meet it, but wait until it comes in front of you. So act toward children, so toward a wife, so toward office, so toward wealth.

More often than not, our commitment to truth only remains while it is consistent with our desire. As the Roman poet Horace once wrote, “Subdue your desires lest they subdue you,” and unless one is disciplined in the philosophy of self-examination and reflection than by default one is subdued.

Am I hurt, injured, or threatened? Or is my desire hurt, injured, or threatened? Semantically, the difference seems small, but regarding truth and freedom, they are universes apart.


As alluded to in the above essential, the affections – which usually cling desperately to desire – need to be grounded in the intellect. By this, I’m referring to what philosophers call the primacy of the intellect. No, I’m not referring to purely discursive reasoning and the laws of logic, but instead am appealing to a more medieval approach, particularly in the work of Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart, he writes,

“The intellect as such is open to become all things and not this or that specifically determined being.”

In like manner, Soren Kierkegaard years later saw the primacy of the intellect as more specifically tied up in one’s own existence, he writes,

“Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.”

Reality, as understood by the Eckhart’s and Kierkagaard’s intellect, is less propositional and more experiential. As the Buddha acknowledged that the true intellect is without judgment. Or, as a modern prophet once revealed evangelically via bumper sticker, “It is what it is.”

Isn’t it odd that when we experience happiness we do not judge it, we let it be, we experience it, and it disappears as soon as it arrives?

It is captured wonderfully by the magician’s tagline, “now you see me, now you don’t.” Yet, isn’t it also tad bit odd that depression, anxiety, fear, and the rest of its compatriots seem to linger on forever? It’s like the clown who pulls the tissue out of his pocket only to reveal a never ended stream of tissues.

Why does this happen?

Because we judge these qualities as bad and thus resist having an experiential encounter with them.  We try to figure out where we went wrong, we blame others around us, we search for any reason to avoid culpability and thus resist them, but as the old adage states, “What we resist, will persist.”

It stands to reason, that if these undesirable qualities we’re simply treated experientially like happiness is, then just like the happiness it would be experienced and vanish.

Do not allow the emotions to subjugate the intellect, but keep the emotions tethered in a nonjudgmental state to experience and you’ll discover an endless volume of opportunities. Sometimes reframing is less ‘why’ and more ‘what’, less rational and more experientially.


A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.

-Meister Eckhart

Benefits for self? Isn’t that carnal? Isn’t that antithetical to spiritual and self-actualizing modes of living? I respond with a resounding no. We understand the world – and the people in it – only by their relationship to ourselves.

We are the ground, the starting point for all understanding and wisdom. Some believe that God, or maybe a Kantian category of sorts, is the necessary precondition to rationality and understanding.

Nonetheless, this conclusion can never be reached until we first realize that we are not the sources of our own knowledge, but instead are merely self-conscious of ourselves, which is the beginning of any pursuit.

For instance, as I write this article, it first began in my own mind, in my consciousness, wrestling with the ideas and so forth. So my investigation of the world in which “I” reside must naturally begin with “myself.”

Further, we learn less by our instruction and more by our failures and emotional discomfort. For example, Eckhart writes,

If I had a friend and loved him because of the benefits which this brought me and because of getting my own way, then it would not be my friend that I loved but myself. I should love my friend on account of his own goodness and virtues and account of all that he is in himself. Only if I love my friend in this way do I love him properly.

If one pours out love for another solely because the benefits it carries for themselves, only intense dissatisfaction and restlessness can be the long term effects. Sure, the short term game feels profitable but in the end, it’s only consummate bankruptcy.

One of the many benefits of relationships is self-understanding; indeed, it takes a community to understand oneself. Of consequence, those in community are also understood in this process – this is the process of connection via empathy.

So in short, asking if one’s current understanding is beneficial is asking this one question: does the interpretation begin with love or a contrary motive?


One must not always think so much about what one should do, but rather what one should be. Our works do not ennoble us, but we must ennoble our works.

-Meister Eckhart

This last phase of the reframing process is teleological in scope; teleology is a philosophical term that defines the underlying purpose, goal or trajectory of something, be it the universe, a subatomic particle, or the human personality – assuming, of course, there is one.

Now, all human personality is teleological in nature – we all project an image of ourselves that we strive earnestly to live up to. Unfortunately, sometimes the image needs some refocusing, that is in terms of purity and realism.

For instance, if your idea of self is perfect that’s not realistic – you’re not God. That’s going to cause all types of interpersonal animosity because you will either be perceived as arrogant, unapproachable, withdrawn or something unfavorable.


Because everything is a threat to your perfection like sin is to the holiness of God. But people are imperfect….see what I’m getting out? This won’t work.

The situation doesn’t need to be reframed as much as your projected self which needs modifying. Adlerian psychology – Alfred Adler’s namesake – calls this fictional finalism.

“Adler was influenced by the philosopher Hans Vaihinger who proposed that people live by many fictional ideals that have no relation to reality and therefore cannot be tested and confirmed. For example, that all men are created equal; women should always bow to the will of their husband; and the end justifies the means. These fictions may help a person feel powerful and justify the rightness of their selfish choices, although at the same time cause others harm and injustice and destroy relationships…”

“Fictional Finalism proposes that people act as much from accepted ideals as they do from observed reality. Whatever the subconscious mind accepts as true, it acts as if it is true whether it is or not – it does not have the benefit of the conscious mind’s ability to observe independently and check with real experience. From the point of the view of the person, such a fiction may be taken as the basis for their orientation in the world and as one aspect of compensation for felt inferiority.”

Thus, the projected fictional image is not inherently bad, it’s neutral and necessary, instead what is vital is that we calibrate it as to target stronger interpersonal relationships and to operate with other people in mind i.e. seeks to dismantle selfishness.


As the late Chuck C once noted, “maybe Heaven is just a new pair of glasses.” If we can be committed to the truth regardless of the lies we attempt to sell ourselves, if we can weather the storm of discomfort despite our inherent desire to maintain constant pleasure, if we can confront our problems rather than avoid them, we can experience a whole new world.

This may not sound appealing but it’s tantamount to the day following a solid workout at the gym. That is, the discomfort is evidence of growth rather than failure. Therefore it is imperative that we live in our current time, not transferring myriad emotions of past onto the present. That we remain anchored in freedom rather than transient desires.

This entails being dedicated to experience rather than explanations and judgments and being devoted to that which benefits all rather oneself. And finally, the goal must be to project an image or ideal self which corresponds with the above, then one can rest assured it’s not the Ray Bans they sport, but divine spectacles.

Timmy G (2019)