“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Mark twain
A story of a mom and her son talking goes something like this…. Boy: “mom imagine you are surrounded by hungry lions, what would you do?” Mom: considers response, trying to come up with a good one. Boy: “stop imagining”.
We can all relate to quotes, and stories, like these that point to the double-edged nature of our mind. On the one hand, thinking has made us flourish as a species; developing vaccines, getting us to space, building amazing structures. On the other hand, our mind seems to be the source of so much unnecessary suffering. There are also a lot of neutral thoughts. The difficulty is that there is no “off switch”. We can’t have all the good stuff without also having the incessant nature of the mind. So, what is to be done? If only there were an easy way to live our life and not get pulled into the worst-case future scenarios or past difficulties. Its like our mind is a “problem-solving machine” looking to fix potential problems or right past wrongs. The problem is often there is nothing we can do about future events, or past events that have already occurred. So how do we find a middle ground with the “problem-solving mind”.
A good first step is to understand the nature of the mind. Normalizing the nature of the mind allows us to let go of guilt, shame, anger, confusion….: “what’s wrong with me”, “why can’t I just enjoy this without over thinking”, “why is everything easier for other people?” When you understand this as a normal part of being a human it allows us to see the nature of the mind as less of an enemy or battle to be won. We can see this is how our mind evolved, to help our species survive. This is a wonderful first step.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the next step. It takes practice to see thoughts for what they truly are: just a string of words or images. We can learn that not every thought needs to be attended to and, rather, start to see our automatic thoughts as out of our control. However, our response to our thoughts is in our control, and we can decide if we will let our thoughts guide our actions or take us away from what we truly care about.
Some ways to start this process are to notice thought in an objective way: “what is my mind saying”, “that’s an interesting thought”. Then deciding if a thought is helpful. Is there something practical that I can do because of this thought? If not, then you can practice having a thought, noticing it, and letting it pass- not clinging to it, but not pushing it away. See it like a cloud that passes on its own. This is often something we haven’t done before so practice is important (to help with practice see link to a meditation below in references).
There are many ways to access this noticing part of ourselves and begin to learn how to have a thought without letting it “hook us”. The above is a good starting point. I invite you to notice the nature of your mind and see if there is more room to make decisions even if your mind tells you, you can’t, you shouldn’t or something terrible might happen. In this way we can respond to situations rather than react, finding new freedom from our thoughts.
Written by Alison Campbell, Registered Psychologist with Wildflowers
Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Harris, R. (2007) The happiness trap: Stop struggling and start living. Wollombi, NSW, Australia: Exisle Publishing.
Brach, T. (2021, October, 6). Meditation: Letting Thought Clouds Come and Go. Meditations. Tarabrach.com/blog., https://www.tarabrach.com.