Long ago, before fate taught me the value of humility, I placed a lot of stock in my analytical intelligence. It started half way through a rebellious high school career, when I took to heart what people outside my immediate family had said about me since toddlerhood: I had a good mind.
Emerging from an upbringing that gave me little reason to have much self esteem, I grabbed onto the only compliment that had ever consistently come my way, and began applying myself. This rescued my grade point average, and soon I found myself in college, where sharp thinking was highly regarded. It became clear that I had strong problem-solving abilities, which might have been inherited from my physicist father. Or perhaps growing up in a dangerous and chaotic family had trained me to scrutinize and scheme. Either way, thinking eventually earned me a rewarding career, financial security, and feelings of power.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, however, all that evaporated ten years ago. Ever after, compulsive thinking has been a liability rather than an asset. If I’m not careful, it is easy to spend long, boring hours ruminating about my losses and my fears. If I don’t stop myself, I analyze my life from every conceivable angle in a desperate but doomed search for a solution to my problems. But in this context, thinking is not the answer. It only keeps my frustrations on center stage, and accelerates the engine of anxiety. It has taken a long time for me to truly believe this, and it requires ongoing effort to change my pattern.
I strive effortfully to think less. Even with that goal foremost in my awareness, my mind manages to churn out plenty of thoughts, more than enough to solve my day-to-day challenges and prepare for the future. But whenever I notice my mind thinking aimlessly, or worrying, or criticizing, I stop. There are many tricks I use. For today, I’ll name just one.
Let’s say I’m walking and worrying at the same time. This happens often. If I catch myself, I start doing a body scan. The body scan is a simple mindfulness exercise taught in meditation classes, especially those given in clinical settings. One moves one’s conscious attention from one extreme of the body to the other. One can start with head or feet, but I usually start low and work up.
I pay attention to one foot at a time, focus in turn on each toe, or even single parts of each toe, and then move to the sole of my foot, the top, and the sides. Then I shift my attention to the foot’s inner workings, to explore joint sensations. I investigate the feelings in each location for about the duration of a breath, and then move on. I finish with one foot and then switch to the other. I complete the feet and journey up the ankles, calves, knees, and hips. I ascend my entire trunk while noting sensations both on the surface and deep inside my pelvis, abdomen, and chest. I traverse both arms and the inner and outer aspects of my neck. Then I explore the mouth, visit all parts of my face, and likewise the rest of my head. If the walk ends before the scan is complete, I make a mental note to pick up where I left off on the next walk.
It’s a busier walking meditation than you might learn at a Buddhist retreat, but it’s what my mind needs to distract itself. It’s a challenge to feel the fourth toe, for instance. Until I started this practice, my brain had never focused specifically on that body part before, and it takes a few tries to locate and strengthen the sensory pathway. The practice can be fascinating, for instance when I explore the movements in all the many foot bones, and feel the pressure of the ground transmit through my feet to my legs.
It has shown me how much sensory information streams into the brain every instant, and how much gets ignored. I feel far more in touch with my body from doing this practice.
Better yet, I think less. Rather than losing myself in repetitive and nonproductive (if not downright destructive) thoughts, I stay with my body. I suspect this is the way animals live: in touch with inner and outer sensations, grounded in the moment. It brings me alive, and takes me away from petty worries. Most of all, I now understand that thinking is overrated and overused.