“Huh?” you might think. “I’m in control of my mind. I decide what to think, and when.” But for most people that’s frequently not true. The mind is constantly generating thoughts, and too often one of those thoughts can capture your attention and keep you imprisoned in its narrow, frequently negative, perspective. Consider: worry, anger, guilt, jealousy, resentment, embarrassment…these are terms that we characterize as emotions but that are primarily generated, and invariably sustained, by thought. The proof: the large majority of the time people gripped by these emotions are reacting RETRO or PROactively, disconnected from the triggering action in time and, usually, in space. When you’re in their grip you’ve lost control – it’s all you can think about. Some examples:
CAREER: Will I get promoted? Why doesn’t the recruiter call me back? Suppose I get downsized? I can’t believe I wasn’t invited to that meeting. This place is too political for me. I hate having a windowless office. How come the boss pays more attention to her?
RELATIONSHIPS: Why didn’t she answer my text? I always pay for dinner. If he only lost a few pounds I’d be more interested in sex. She’s too wish-washy. I wish he would do something other than watch sports. I can’t believe my mother talks to me that way.
If most of those thoughts related to productive analysis or processing it wouldn’t be so wasteful, but wasteful it too often is since the thoughts tend to remain in a loop that simply replays the disturbing event and your initial reactions to it over and over again.
It’s unrealistic to expect that you can completely free yourself from this lifelong pattern. But it’s quite possible to significantly reduce the amount of time your mind churns. How? By practicing observing when and how these loops emerge. As you observe the workings of your mind you are separating yourself from it, which is the key. You are NOT your thoughts.
There’s a simple observation exercise I particularly like. First, close your eyes and begin slow, deep breathing through your nostrils. Notice the subtle, slightly ticklish feeling in your nose as the air goes in and out (if you can’t find that sensation, try pursing your lips and pay attention to the feeling of the air brushing against your lips as you breathe). This should be where your mind focuses during the exercise. As you begin the slow, deep breathing your mind will, within a second or two, generate a thought, seemingly out of nowhere. * Just notice the thought but don’t evaluate or judge it (or better still, simply notice that you had a thought). Then bring your attention back to the ticklish sensation in your nose. Keep doing this for 5 minutes to start, going up to 10 in a week or so. If you’re like most people you’ll find that one of those random thoughts engages you and, before you realize it, you’ll have spent a minute or several minutes “captured” by the thought before you remember to refocus on your nostrils.
The exercise not only enables you to observe the constant churning of the mind but also allows you to strengthen your “mental focusing muscle” so that you become better and better at putting your mind where YOU want it to be as opposed to where your mind drags you. It’s a really great way to strengthen your control over your mind, your most priceless asset.
*Sometimes a thought will be generated by an outside noise, or perhaps an itch, but generally no stimulus is required!