Today I return to what is probably my favorite subject – improving your ability to direct your thoughts so that what you wind up focusing on leaves you feeling better rather than worse. Last night I had a session with a client in which I proposed an analogy I had never used before. Imagine that you lost a limb (hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are struggling with this very loss right now). At first you would need to focus on the loss in order to learn techniques to compensate for it. However, once you’d learned the physical tools to deal with the injury, would you need to focus on it? To the contrary, allowing your thoughts to remain there would certainly lead to sadness and probably to depression. Of course it would be very easy to dwell on the tragedy of the loss, on the limitations it placed on you, on the likely reaction of people to seeing you, etc. That’s the “natural” place for your mind to go, as you would be reminded of your loss with literally every step that you took. But it’s not a place that would serve you most of the time.

It is fairly easy to understand the concept that, at least in theory, we can choose what we’re thinking about. We make “thought choices” thousands of times a day, ranging from “I’m going to push the snooze button on the alarm” to “I’m going to order a chicken sandwich for lunch” to “I need to brush my teeth before I go to bed.” It’s harder to see that we’re also making a choice by dwelling on loss, loneliness, anger, or anxiety. That’s not to say that the choice is an easy one; in the instances just mentioned we are “wired” to have a tendency towards thinking and feeling negatively because our body sends us signals that point us in that direction. Training your mind to go where it naturally wouldn’t is a project requiring concentration, practice, and devotion. The key is to begin practicing with fairly easy shifts, gradually moving on to the more challenging ones.

The best way to begin your training is to sit quietly for a few minutes, breathing slowly in and out, and focusing your attention on the feeling of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils or your mouth. Within a second or two a random thought will enter your mind (our minds are, among other things, incessant thought-generating machines). Notice that the thought has entered your consciousness and then shift your attention back to the feeling of your breath. Engaging in this process is like working out your thought focusing muscles; with each shift of attention back to your breathing you are enhancing your ability to place your thoughts where you want them to be, rather than having them captured by something undesirable. You can engage in a similar exercise in many other settings: while waiting on line in the supermarket, while lying in bed as you’re ready to go to sleep; while running (outdoors or on a treadmill), etc.

The next level of practice involves shifting your attention away from mild annoyances towards a more benign place (e.g. rather than fuming at the guy who decided not to let you into the line of cars merging into a lane, pay attention to the make and model of his car). Diligence in practicing putting your thoughts where you want them to be rather than where they happen to be will pay off big time, but only if you make the effort to think about what you’re thinking about.