When we are masters of our minds, we use them to see reality, problem-solve and determine the right next step. But sometimes, we let the mind master us by not being aware of what we are thinking, believing figments of our imagination, or going into a never-ending thought loop.
Thoughts are simply what our minds do; they are neither good nor bad. You cannot turn thoughts off. But you can change how they influence your life. To be master of your thoughts, you start by being aware of your thoughts, disentangle yourself from them, and decide how you want to deal with them. Thoughts are a driving force in our mood, behavior, and, ultimately, our life. So, we want to use them to shape the life we want.
“Your mind is a glassblower, shaping a delicate world for your body to occupy.” Don Miguel Ruiz
Our thoughts are not reality, not the way things ‘really are,’ and, more importantly, our thoughts aren’t who we are. They may be a tiny part of us, but they are not all of us. Sometimes we let our thoughts limit us. The thought “I am a bad meditator.” leads us not to want to meditate. When we do meditate, we have the thought, “I am a bad meditator.”, confirming in our minds that our initial thought was true (confirmation bias).
“Every one of us human beings has two minds. One is totally ours, and it is like a faint voice that always brings us order, directness, purpose. The other mind is a foreign installation. It brings us conflict, self-assertion, doubts, hopelessness. To resolve the conflict of the two minds is a matter of intending it.” Carlos Castaneda
We can choose what we do with the 2000-3000 thoughts we have each hour, but it takes practice. We are unaware of most of these thoughts, whether they come from ourselves and foreign installations. Most rehash the past or stir up anxiety about the future. We meditate to train our mind to be aware of the thoughts so we can: recognize which mind it comes from, choose to remain lost in the thought or change the channel, decide if we want to believe the thought, and determine if we will allow that thought to influence our words and our actions.
Mindfulness practice does not turn off our thoughts, but it allows us to look deeply at our thoughts in a kind and nonjudgmental way. If we judge our thoughts, we are practicing judgment, and we can get really good at judging ourselves. If we are kind to ourselves, we are practicing kindness, and we can get really good at being kind to ourselves. Mindfulness is not just about seeing the thoughts; it is about looking at them in a curious, kind, nonjudgmental way. We identify thoughts as simply that—thoughts.
Our mindfulness practice helps us to work with our thoughts in three fundamental ways.
First, become aware of the constant torrent of thoughts cascading through our minds.
With mindfulness, we can become more aware of our thoughts and the contents of our thoughts. We notice our habits of mind and how repetitive our thinking is by simply listening to mindful awareness. It is like you are watching that thought on a movie screen. Here it is again. You will see the transient nature of thoughts, that they are fleeting ideas, all impermanent.
You may notice how you are hopscotching through time and space, pinging from one thought to another. Sometimes the thoughts are constructive, and sometimes they are not. More often than not, our thoughts are about our emotions, desires, experiences, and needs.
Pay close attention to whether you are adding on to the thought. Typically, we add the thought “something is wrong”—either wrong in general or, more likely, wrong with another person or with ourselves. Looking at the sun, we start to think tomorrow is supposed to be gray. We are no longer in the present moment enjoying the sun; we are in the future seeing the gray sky.
Second, we learn to extricate ourselves from the stories we are constantly creating.
When we disentangle ourselves from our thoughts, we realize that just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to believe it. We don’t have to act on it and certainly don’t have to get caught up in the whole stream of thoughts. We discover with great relief that our thoughts do not fully define us.
We need to acknowledge the experience of a story unfolding and feel the emotions and body sensations related to that story. If we can feel the body sensations, that can be our bell of mindfulness. We can stop and take a breath to look at things more clearly. When we recognize the thought, we are less likely to identify with or become lost in the thought. We can transform one-sided thoughts of certainty into a world of liberating possibilities. Instead of thinking, “I am a bad meditator.”, we can think when our minds wander again and again, “I am getting more practice bringing my mind back.”
Third, choose what we do with our thoughts.
Let’s look at four options. We can stay lost in thought, ignore our thoughts, become curious about them, or change the channel.
Stay Lost in Thought
When we are lost in thought, our thoughts become our master. We often have trouble changing the channel on our thoughts as we let anxiety take over. When we are lost in negative thinking, we can become distressed. Our prefrontal cortex stops working, and our amygdala pushes us onto the hamster wheel of reactivity. The wheel spins round and round, and we can’t get off no matter how hard we try.
“This is called “cognitive shock,” which turns off the cognitive mind’s basic ability to function. When the thinking brain is on sabbatical, we simply can’t think clearly. During cognitive shock, the “old” brain, which is based on survival and defense, takes over. At this point we’re likely to attack, withdraw or go numb, none of which are conducive to awareness.” Ezra Bayda
Sometimes when the thoughts are unpleasant, we put our heads in the sand and try to ignore the thoughts. When you ignore your thoughts, you think they go away. But they remain in your unconscious. No matter how hard you try to push them away, they keep coming back sometimes without you even being aware. We have a natural resistance to feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. So, when unpleasant thoughts swarm in our heads, we leave the present moment and distract ourselves. But resistance keeps us hooked.
“Our deeply believed thoughts of personal insecurity may not be evident on the surface in a given situation; truthfully, we’re often unaware of their presence. But their poisonous footprint often manifests itself in our anger, blame, depression, and shame. These deeply believed and well-hidden thoughts of insecurity thus act like radar, and we often seek out experiences that confirm that our beliefs are true—the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.” Ezra Bayda
A more skillful way to deal with our thoughts is to become curious. We think our memory of the past is reality. But our brains are not video recorders; they take photos. We fill in the spaces between the photographs to make up our stories of the past. We concoct what we think happened. When we believe the stories of our past, we believe in a figment of our imagination.
Curious, judgment-free thinking does not come naturally; it needs to be learned. It requires us to step back and take off our rose-colored or dark glasses. We attempt to see reality as it is without distorting it. We acknowledge that the past can’t be changed. And we can get creative about choosing our next words or actions.
When we are curious, we ask:
- Is it true or partially true?
- How does it feel in my body?
- What are the underlying beliefs or feelings that make this thought powerful?
- How can I see things differently?
- What do I need to let go of this thought?
Change the Channel
Changing the channel is not easy to do. The way we learn to do that is by meditating. All we are doing when we are meditating is choosing what we will attend to and how we will attend to it. When we practice shifting the focus of our attention, we learn to let thoughts fade into the background instead of pushing them away. As with any skill, the more we practice, the easier it gets, so eventually, we can do it with even difficult sticky thoughts.
Sometimes the only way to change the channel is to distract yourself. If it is not the right time for you to process the thought, you may choose to distract yourself with a good book, a movie, a call to a friend or a walk with nature. The thought will reoccur, and when you are better resourced to process is, you can do so.
It takes effort and courage to look at our thoughts objectively and non-judgmentally. But that is necessary to be the master of our minds. This effort is worthwhile because thoughts are a driving force in our mood, behavior, and, ultimately, our life.