Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. Which might not be the best idea since thinking can get us into a lot of trouble.
I just can’t help it. I work a lot with thoughts. That’s a major part of being a therapist (Besides the emotions, which I know y’all can’t get enough of.). “Tell me what you think about that,” “Are there any other ways to look at that,” “How can you reframe that?” The more I work with thoughts (Mine and those shared with me.), the more I question our relationship with them.
We have thousands of those suckers a day. Sometimes it seems like they’ll never stop chattering in there! There’s some debate as to exactly how much thousands, but it doesn’t really matter because any number in the thousands is a lot. I can only imagine if I did anything else thousands of times a day how good I’d be at that thing. Which is ironic, considering most of us aren’t that great at thinking.
We think our thoughts are the the whole truth and nothing but the truth, when actually that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the time our thoughts are a whole lot of BS. They’re rarely factual or based in reality (Aka what we experience with our senses. What we can taste, touch, smell, hear, and see. Does this sound familiar? Maybe a little something called mindfulness?). Most of our thoughts are stories we’ve made up to fill in the holes left by missing information. Bet most of you didn’t realize what great storytellers you are.
Like, “He didn’t smile at me because he doesn’t like me.” Part of that may be true, the part where he didn’t smile at you (something observable), but has he told you he doesn’t like you?
Or, “I’m going to bomb that speech tomorrow.” Oh, you’re a fortune teller, now? What else is going to happen? I’d love the winning lotto numbers.
Or, “I made such a fool of myself in front of them. My life is over!” Really, you’re actually dead right now?
Now, I’m not trying to make fun of anyone, much less myself, because this is one of my favorite games too. I have such a need to fill in the holes. Luckily as time has gone on and I learn more about my thoughts, this has improved.
The truth is, life is uncertain, we don’t like uncertainty, and so we attempt to exert control over anything that makes us think we’re standing on solid ground.
If we don’t like how someone’s behavior makes us feel, we ask them to behave differently (Parents, I’m hard core looking at you!). And that’s just when we have some extra patience. Often we’re yelling or huffing and puffing to manipulate others to conform to how we want them to operate their lives. Or if it isn’t someone else, we try to change the things outside of us. We feel empty and unfulfilled inside so we think we should get a new job, relationship, home, or pair of pants, color our hair, adopt a pet, have a baby.
This is super duper effective. For a minute. But it never lasts. Because life is uncertain, folks. Change is all we can depend on. The only consistency we can even dream of in our lives, is how we operate on the inside. And our thoughts are a huge part of that. Being mindful of our thoughts can help big time with this.
Wait, isn’t mindfulness supposed to quiet my mind?
Well, yes it is… but... it’s complicated.
Simple, yet complicated.
Being fully aware in the present moment does quiet the mind. And part of awareness is what is going on inside of you. Since we have brains (Most of us.), we’re going to have thoughts. The idea isn’t to banish thoughts forever. That would lead to a whole other set of issues I won’t even get into, but if you haven’t done enough thinking today, maybe ponder on that. Even the attempt to banish thoughts usually leads to more thoughts.
So paying too much attention to thoughts isn’t good and hiding from them isn’t good. What the heck am I even supposed to do?
The key is to simply observe them like you would a movie, letting them come and go. Don’t get too wrapped up in them and don’t ignore them completely. Just notice them.
That’s it. Easy, right? Until you try to do it. It’s a practice, like anything mindful. We move in and out of it. But it is freeing when we have experiences of not allowing our thoughts to control us.
So for those who need a little more structure, here’s an awareness of thoughts meditation:
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
Focus on the sensations of your breath without trying to change it any way.
After a few minutes of focusing on your breath, shift your attention to the various thoughts that arise and pass through your mind.
Observe your thoughts rather than get drawn into their content or resisting them.
Notice what your thoughts are about, any sensations or emotions that go along with them, and the intensity of them.
Get curious about your thoughts. Notice any patterns, whether you think in words or images (or both), whether images are in color or black and white, or anything else that comes to your attention.
Notice any gaps or pauses between thoughts.
When you realize you’ve become lost in your thoughts, are pushing them away, or judging them, just notice this and bring your attention back to observing them.
When you’re ready (Setting a timer helps some.), return your attention to your breath for a few minutes and slowly open your eyes.
What thoughts are: Self-talk, other verbal content, images, memories, fantasies, and plans. Sensations, emotions, and desires may also accompany your thoughts and it can be helpful to notice them in the same way as your thoughts.
Thoughts are okay: Again, we have brains. We will think. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re just practicing being mindful of our thoughts and not automatically believing and grasping on to them.
Modifications: You can also modify this meditation and do it while walking, running, or some other rote-ish activity where there’s often lots of space for your thoughts to run wild. I wouldn’t recommend it while driving or some other activity in which your focus should be primarily on that activity, especially at first. Eventually, if you practice enough you’ll start to more automatically notice your thoughts in all kinds of situations.
So we’re not against thoughts or trying to get rid of them. I love having conversations, learning new things, creating new things, and thoughts are a huge part of being able to do that. We’re just trying not to let them control and run/ruin our lives. We have to remind ourselves that our thoughts are simply thoughts. Nothing more. Nothing less. This frees us and allows us to live a life of more ease and clarity. And connection with ourselves and others. I challenge you to give it a try.