I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been very successful controlling my thoughts. I’ve learned that with awareness, I can chose how I relate and respond to them in a way that they have less of a hold over me. Mindfulness allows us the opportunity to pay attention on purpose, without judgment, to the present moment. When we bring a sense of openness and curiosity to our thoughts, we can influence how our life is impacted by them and ultimately gain a better sense of control.
For the next minute, try not to have one thought. If you are like me, you probably can’t command your thoughts to turn on and off at will. When I settle in to meditate, my mind can be in a place of calm or it resembles a Broadway show with lots of drama. It all depends on my state of mind and what is going on in my life.
Sometimes our thoughts are spent reflecting, regretting, or analyzing some scenario in the past. At times, thoughts are drawn into the future with planning, fantasy or dreaming of things being different than they are. Our inner critic or our super ego can turn our thoughts into self-judgments, which can leave us feeling “less than” or with a feeling of inadequacy.
When you are pulled into a strong thought that is difficult to let go of, trying to push it away doesn’t always work. One way to approach this is to allow yourself permission to have all thoughts and emotions, without judgment, but it may be wise not to act on them. For example, give yourself permission to be angry or frustrated with someone if that arises but you may not want to take action based on that state of mind.
When a strong emotion or thought arises, allow yourself to break it down. Investigate the thought with curiosity and openness. What physical sensations are you feeling in the body? A great exercise is to try this for 5 minutes when you are stuck in traffic. Turn the radio off and sense into your body.
What is the overall sense in the body?
Is the experience pleasant, unpleasant or neutral?
How do the hands feel on the steering wheel? Is the grip tight or loose?
Is there a rushed or restless feeling in the body?
You may notice new thoughts arise and interrupt your awareness of body sensations. This is normal. Other thoughts may say something like this
“I should’ve left earlier”
“My friend will be so mad at me”
“You’re such a loser, you are always late”
This is the inner critic saying hello.
When you notice yourself caught in this new thought, intentionally sensing into the body allows you to break the endless rehashing of thoughts and brings us out of the past and the future and into the here and now.
The goal is not to control your thoughts. Let your thoughts happen freely then gently allow yourself to come back to the present moment with an invitation to explore bodily sensations.
If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness works, you can watch this video. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can join our 8-Week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course starting in January. You can choose to do the Tuesday evening series or Thursday afternoon series. Early registration discount applies if you register before December 15th.