From time to time, I meet clients whose thinking is no longer free-flowing. They are caught in a repeating pattern of the same thoughts that come up again and again. What’s more, each time the thought comes up it can seem to get more compelling. This can leave clients feeling over-wrought, angry, sad, anxious…any time that we get stuck in our thinking our well-being tends to dip.
It’s easy to feel as if our well-being is dictated by what happens to us, that we have no control. We might think that if we had more money, or nicer friends, or more leisure time, we would feel better. Studies of what causes well-being tell a different story. Life circumstances are perhaps surprisingly not the main influence on our well-being, our thinking patterns, habits and even our genetics have a role to play.
So how is thinking significant? Sometimes, we perceive that we ARE our thoughts. The very fact that we are aware of what we think tells us differently. I have thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and yet, I am more, or bigger, than each of them. This can be a liberating realisation. If I am more than just what I think, then I have the opportunity to influence my thinking, and as a result change the way I feel and how I act.
In Eastern Philosophy, thoughts are often considered as a sixth sense. Our eyes see many images yet we focus on very few of them. We hear many noises, and yet we are able to screen out background sounds when we want to listen to something in particular. The suggestion is that like the images, sounds, and feelings that others senses pick up, our mind is simply a sense that has thoughts arising in it. We can choose which thoughts to pay attention to, and which to just let pass.
This way, we remain grounded and calm and life’s experiences can keep flowing through us. I think this teaching is valid whatever your spiritual perspective. Let’s face it; we’re never likely to have a life that provokes no thoughts or feelings, so how we experience them is key.
Here are two exercises that can be useful to restore your balance when your thoughts begin to run the show.
Visualise an eternal candle, shining brightly within you. Make it the colour and size that you really like, that feels strong and steady. As thoughts arise in your mind, visualise them flickering the flame, as if they were a breeze. Notice that the candle continues to shine, staying alight, despite the thoughts that pass by.
Another metaphor that can be helpful is to experience yourself as a mountain. Take a few minutes to centre yourself, and get a sense of how grounded you are. As you notice thoughts coming up, imagine they are clouds that just drift by. Sometimes the clouds may even be dark, perhaps rain bearing. Just sit, and notice that the mountain is stable, and solid, and ensures as the weather passes. Notice how brightly the sun shines in between the clouds.
Research has shown that just 20 minutes of mindfulness practice over four days can improve your cognitive skills, taking some time out in this way doesn’t just improve how you feel, it changes how you think.