In my “Monkey Mind” (4.13.23) and “Caveman Brain” (4.18.23) blogs, I addressed the evolution of the human brain and how it has evolved to keep us safe by constantly surveying our environment and generating tens of thousands of thoughts each day.
In my “History of Mindfulness” (4.26.23) and “I Think Therefore I Am” (5.23.23) blogs, I looked into the practice of mindfulness, the concept of the observing-self, and how, by practicing mindfulness we can nurture our ability to become aware of our thoughts, thereby increasing the likelihood that we respond to challenging situations with workable, value-congruent behaviors.
In my most recent blog (“Getting Hooked” 7.30.23), I addressed the concept of Cognitive Fusion, which often results in our behaviors being influenced by our thoughts which can lead to unworkable behavior, behavior that moves us away from our values and often yields undesired outcomes.
In this blog, I will address how we can begin to nurture our ability to be mindful, and in turn, facilitate our ability to unhook/defuse from our brain’s thoughts. The goal is not to stop thinking, or even change our thoughts, but to change our relationship to our thoughts and thereby change the quality of our lives.
Lessons from some of history’s great thinkers
In his seminal work, The Principles of Psychology (1890), the 19th century philosopher and psychologist, William James (1842 – 1910), wrote, “When we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we paid attention to…” American philosopher, theologian, and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) wrote, “You become what you think about all day long.” In the second century AD, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180), known for residing over Rome during an age of relative peace and a practitioner of Stoic philosophic principles, has been credited with the quote, “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts,” the Greek philosopher Epictetus (50 – 135 AD) said, “Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinions of the things that happen,” and Socrates (470 – 399 BC), often referred to as the father of Western philosophy, is credited with stating, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
One thing all these highly regarded philosophers and critical observers of the human condition had in common was their belief that one’s experience of life is highly correlated to the nature of one’s thoughts. Therefore, if we wish to improve our lives, we need to pay careful attention to the nature of our thoughts. I am a huge admirer of and adherent to the basic tenants of the above statements, but if I may be so bold as to embellish the views of these great men, I believe that the way we experience our life is not necessarily a function of our thoughts, but directly correlated to how we think about our thoughts, and that if we are to improve the quality of our lives and, how we experience our lives, it is incumbent upon us not to change our thoughts, but to change our relationship with our thoughts.
“Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”-Marlatt & Kristeller”
The above is one of many definitions of mindfulness. What I like about this one is its simplicity and focus on what I believe is the core building block of developing mindfulness, “paying attention.” Having said this, for many people the idea of paying attention connotes an arduous undertaking. The practice of noticing is not complicated, and contrary to what many might think, it doesn’t have to take place while sitting cross-legged on a cushion. One can engage in noticing anywhere and anytime throughout one’s day. All it requires is a commitment of a little time, intention, and a willingness to be open to all thoughts that arise. Contrary to what many might think, the goal is not to stop thinking or change your thoughts. And while practicing mindfulness takes commitment, it is not an exercise of extreme effort, on the contrary, it requires the practitioner to engage with a sense of ease, openness and flexibility. It is an exploration, a treasure-hunt, like watching the night sky, passing clouds, or a leaf gently floating down a stream.
Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician, physicist, inventor and philosopher, is credited with saying” “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” So obviously, if it was easy to sit alone with our thoughts in order to rid ourselves of all our miseries, I assume we would all be doing it! So, if you are like most of us, and well over three-quarters of my clients, you probably are hesitant to embark on the practice of noticing your thoughts.
Noticing Made Easy
OK, what follows is a way to “dip your toe in the water” of noticing with little chance of drowning. The time you are most apt to notice your mind’s proclivity to run amok (monkey mind) is late at night as you lie in bed, either waiting for sleep to overtake you or desperately trying to fall back to sleep. (Racing thoughts is the number one reported reason attributed to insomnia). At night, in bed, it is quiet, and other than your breathing and the beating of your heart, there are few distractions. It’s at this time that it is easy to, almost impossible not to, notice the activity of your mind. There you are, lying in bed, going over events of the day, thinking about the tasks for tomorrow, concerned that you will forget an “important” thought that just popped into your head, remembering, imagining, regretting, worrying. Your brain is focused on reminding you of everything that went wrong (in hope it doesn’t happen again), worrying about everything that might go wrong (in hope that you will be prepared), and instead of giving you a pep talk, your mind is reminding you that you are an imposter, a screw-up, a loser. As I have written in previous blogs, your brain is programmed to keep you safe, and as a result, has developed a negativity bias to ensure that you are prepared to take on life’s challenges. But as I have also addressed, this was well and good when life challenges were few, and those that existed involved actual survival. You mind thinks it is helping you problem solve, but what it is actually doing is getting in your way of being effective and living with a sense of ease, joy, contentment, and serenity. There are several terms that are used for what your mind is doing: magnification, awfulizing, rumination. These activities of the brain are unproductive, and certainly do not facilitate problem-solving!
Taking all the above into account, we are going to turn this around. Instead of allowing your brain’s unproductive rumination to get in your way, we are going to use it to foster our ability to notice. All you need is a pad of paper and a pen. Place these on your nightstand. Now lie back and focus on your breath. You don’t have to do anything. Just watch your breath come and go. Allow it to be what it is. You might notice it is rapid or slow, deep or shallow. Just notice. In a short period of time, you will either fall asleep or drift into thought. When you notice a thought, just say to yourself, “I notice my mind is having the thought that…..”, then go back to focusing on your breath. The next time you notice you have drifted into thought, again, say to yourself, “I notice my mind is having the thought that….,” then go back to noticing your breath. If the same thought shows up again, and it most likely will, I would like you to reach over and jot down the thought on your pad. Please, don’t turn on a light! I am certain you can write legibly enough in the dark that you can decipher it in the morning (turning on a light will only make it more difficult to fall asleep.) If you are fortunate enough to immediately fall asleep, do the jotting if you awaken in the middle of the night and find yourself in thought. That’s it! Noticing 101. Then sometime the next day, transcribe your thoughts to a fresh, “orderly” pad. Keep using the scribble pad at night and continue to transfer your nocturnal scribbles to the “orderly” pad sometime the next day (we will be utilizing this list of ruminations in future exercises).
So, there you have it! Follow these instructions and you’ll be on your way to developing a mindfulness practice which, if nurtured, will have long-term, positive, effects.
Finally, below I am attaching a link to an audio file that has a guided noticing exercise. Many of you might find this the easiest way to get started with your noticing practice. It was published by Dr. Russ Harris. In my opinion, he is the preeminent teacher of Acceptant Commitment Therapy. He offers many instructive courses, for both clients and practitioners, and offers a lot of free resources online. (I do not receive any form of compensation from Dr. Harris or actmindfully.com.au.)