Our minds are meaning-making machines. First and foremost, our minds try to protect us by figuring out how to avoid danger. That’s simply part of evolution – if we don’t survive, we won’t be able to enjoy a beautiful sunset, warm embrace, inspiring conversation, inspiring music or art, or life at all.
So, our minds aren’t malevolent (with a few rare exceptions) – they are just trying to taking care of us and minimize pain. However, the methods our minds conjure up to solve our problem in the short term are not always helpful in the long run.
While some of us are more prone to hypervigilance and obsessing than others, at some point just about everyone experiences a time when the monkey-mind crowds out our ability to appreciate and enjoy our lives – or so it can seem.
Engaging in a battle with our thoughts tends to exhaust us. Waiting for our troubling thoughts to stop is like waiting for a backseat driver to quiet down before we set off on our journey. That person may never shut up, kicking them out of the vehicle may not be an option, and meanwhile we’re no further down the road.
A better option is to develop a different sort of relationship with our thoughts. Just like with that backseat driver, we can tolerate our thoughts and still let them know that we are in the driver’s seat and are thus the person deciding our route.
You might experiment with some of the following ideas to gain a bit of healthy distance from your thoughts and to disentangle yourself from obsessing:
If I let this thought control my behavior, where will this get me? Will my life be enriched, or will I be limiting myself unnecessarily?
For example, if you tell yourself that you cannot board a plane to visit your close friend because you have a fear of flying, will this negatively impact your friendship? Fear of flying can be a significant source of anxiety (which can involve emotions and bodily sensations as well as thoughts), so this is not to downplay the condition. However, if you conclude that spending time with your friend in person is important to you, then you might not let your belief about your flight phobia curtail your life. For example, you might go into psychotherapy that is targeted to address this fear, take a mindfulness-based stress management course, or, in the case of milder anxiety, decide to tolerate the anxiety in order to see your friend.
What do I want to stand for in the midst of this experience?
How can I learn and grow as a consequence of this discomfort?
For instance, if you’ve been turned down for a job you really wanted, what can you tell yourself that will be helpful and also realistic? If you listened to the thoughts that berate you for being incompetent, will this help you to be resilient or to fall into a depression? Do you want to practice perseverance, creativity, or flexibility? How about self-compassion, which can come into play when you fall short of your expectations? Incidentally, the more we practice self-compassion, the more we’re actually training in compassion for other people, too, so the benefits abound.
How can I use this suffering as a catapult to cultivate a more meaningful life?
Sometimes our not getting what we thought would make us happy can be a priceless gift. Also, sometimes our actually getting what we wanted can teach us that there was no “there there”, that the acquisition of that fancy car, coveted person, or prestigious job still leaves us feeling empty. In all cases, we gain knowledge (if we’re willing to sit with our experience) about what is true for us – and this is knowledge that we can learn no other way. There is no auditing this course – we have to participate.
Can I recognize that although I am having this thought, I am not my thought? Or am I aware that although I am experiencing a feeling, I am not my feeling? Talking back to or about your thought or feeling as if they are separate entities can help to create some distance. Some ideas:
“Thank you, mind.”
“That’s an interesting thought.”
“I’m having the feeling that…”
“I notice I’m having the thought that…”
“That depressed feeling is present now.”
We can allow our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations to come and go, without allowing them to lead us into avoidance of life. Instead, we can make room for these experiences as we would watch clouds waft by, without mistaking the clouds for the sky, which will exist long after the clouds have gone. We can move toward what matters to us, rather than focusing on moving away from discomfort.
Instead of making uninterrupted happiness our primary goal (which is unrealistic), we can choose values such as kindness, patience, courage, or close relationships. We can try to live in line with these principles, despite our current mental, emotional, and physical states. We all fall short of this ideal, of course. All the same, we can pick ourselves up when we inevitably fall.
We can be willing to see all experiences as gifts. We will experience a full range of thoughts and feelings, but we will not be slaves to them. Instead, we can come to know satisfaction, regardless of our circumstances, because we will know ourselves better, and, through trial and error, what our wisest move and attitude are for each situation. What’s more, we will be more able to take appropriate action, and, after doing so, with consistent practice and over time, we are likely to develop an enduring inner peace.