In my most recent blog, “Getting Unstuck, Step #1, Noticing,” I outlined the skill of noticing as the first step in developing mindful awareness. I quoted several of our “greatest thinkers,” all who alluded to the notion that our experience of our lives is directly related to the nature of our thoughts. I then took this notion one step further and put forth the concept that it isn’t our mind’s thoughts that shape our reality, but how we relate to our thoughts that ultimately influences how we experience our lives. I suggest that the way forward, how to free ourselves from our mind’s dominance over our behavior, begins with actively paying attention to our mind’s activity. In eastern philosophical parlance, this has been referred to as “leaning-in.” That is, instead of trying to ignore our mind’s incessant activity, we bring our full attention to the present moment, and with a sense of openness and curiosity we observe what is showing up.
So now you might ask, “How is focusing on a thought supposed to help me unhook from it? Doesn’t focusing on it make it more likely to take control of my immediate experience?” Not necessarily. To loosely paraphrase Muhammad Ali, “you can’t hit what you cannot see.” So now that you noticed one of your mind’s thoughts, perhaps wrote it down or utilized helping phrase, “I noticed my mind is having the thought that……..”, you might wonder, “what next?”
I assume most of you have heard of quicksand. For those who haven’t, quicksand is a mixture of water and granular material that when agitated, becomes liquified and unable to support weight. In other words, if one steps into quicksand, they will not be supported and begin to sink down into it. In this situation a normal reaction would be to panic and try like the dickens to get out by pulling hard on one of your feet to extricate yourself. The problem with this tactic is, your increased movement as well as moving your weight to a single foot, will further liquify the sand and cause you to sink further. While instinctive, panic and ensuant struggle (“fight or flight” response), is exactly the opposite of workable action. In this scenario, the first thing one should do is to relax, slow down one’s breathing and reduce muscle tension, that is, activate your “parasympathetic nervous system.” The next step, also counterintuitive, is to lay back, that is, lean-in to the sand. The science behind this is that you stop agitating the sand (suspending the liquification process) and by laying back you decrease the pressure per square inch that you are exerting on the sand, thereby increasing your buoyancy.
So there it is, “leaning-in” to your thoughts, what scares you, is the most effective way to exert control over them. And, I just filled you in on Step #2 of how to get unstuck (defusion/unhooking). That is, stop struggling! The more we struggle the more difficult things get. You can’t force a thought out of your mind, and if you try, your immediate experience will be dominated by the task of getting rid of the thought. That is, your behavior is being controlled by the thought, which is the very definition of being hooked, fused, stuck! We all know that trying to not focus on a perceived threat is at best very difficult, and to relax in the presence of a threat, is even harder. But this skill can be learned and mastered. “How,” you might ask. Well, as the absent-minded maestro told the tourist who asked, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!”
Below you will find a link to a short video addressing struggling, and then an exercise to get you on your way to developing your ability to getting unstuck.* This exercise of refocusing when we are overwhelmed, stressed, struggling, stuck, is termed grounding. Again, this is not an easy thing to master, if it can be mastered at all. But over time, with deliberate practice, you will be increasingly adept at noticing when you are hooked, actively lean-in, and then commit to behaving in line with your values.**
* Both of these were created 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.)
**I will be writing about deliberate practice and values in future blogs