If we are aware of our stories, we can decide whether we want to allow that story to influence our words, our actions and therefore, our lives. By doing so we become the author of the next chapter.
Thoughts are images and sound bites, not reality. Scientists estimate that we have 50,000-80,000 thoughts per day. That is 2,100-3,300 thoughts per hour. Our brains are designed to have thoughts. Most of the thoughts we have are reruns of stories we play in our minds: rehashing the past or stirring up anxiety about the future.
Thoughts are stories that pull us into a narrative, which might not be true, and they pull us away from what is happening in the present moment. We can’t control what stories come up and we are often not even aware of the story that is playing. But, with practice, we can become aware of the story and be the author of the next chapter. If we are aware of the story, we can decide whether we want to remain lost in the story, whether we want to believe the story and whether we want to allow that story to influence our words and our actions. By doing so we become the author of the next chapter.
When we look closely at thoughts, we find that many of our thoughts are figments of our imagination. Some thoughts are replays of the monologues of your parents, or other influential people in our lives. Other thoughts come from our inner critic who is so worried that we will fail that it is constantly trying to fix us. Many of our thoughts were helpful at some time in our past, we continue to replay them despite, the fact that they are no longer helpful.
If we allow ourselves to become 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. And each time we spin, we strengthen the neural pathway of that negative thought. That is the bad news about neural plasticity.
- Close your eyes and settle in your body. Say the word trouble. Continue repeating the word trouble. How does it make you feel?
- Come back to your breath for a minute.
- Now say the word kindness. Continue repeating the word kindness. How does that make you feel?
- When you are ready open your eyes.
Neurons that fire together, wire together. Whatever you are thinking about that will become your life pattern. Mindfulness meditation – noticing that you are thinking and bringing the mind back.
Our Top Ten thoughts persist and return again and again. They play like old movies, repeating the same theme. If we’re aware of our Top Ten thoughts, we’ll notice them and not play the movie all the way through. And the good new about neuroplasticity is that we then weaken that neural pathway.
Thoughts are powerful elements in our lives. The mind is a wonderful servant but a horrible master. When the mind is the master, we have these ridiculous, repetitive thought streams which limit our sense of self with judgments and defenses. Our beliefs and fears blind us. We have a whole drama department in our head, and the casting director is indiscriminately handing out the roles of inner dictators and judges, adventurers and prodigal sons, heroes, and victims. We tolerate this constant chatter in our minds. We have this chatter going on in our heads telling us how horrible we are, we eat too much, we are fat and lazy, and we will never be able to meditate. We let that mental chatter go on and on until we somehow come to believe that these ruminations, judgments, and worries are an accurate representation of how our lives and the world ‘really are.’ What they really are is just thought bubbles, figments of our imagination.
We can’t turn off the thoughts, so if you are coming to meditation to turn them off, you will be disappointed. Meditation is about seeing into this stream of thought generated stories. When we see the stories, we become the master and the stories lose their power over us. We identify thoughts as simply that—stories. Our stories are not reality, not the way things ‘really are,’ and, more important, our stories aren’t who we are. They may be a little part of us, but they are not all of us.
Thoughts are stories that pull us into a narrative, which might not be true, and they pull us away from what is happening in the present moment. Mindfulness practice 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 learn that thoughts and stories are always present but not always true.
Our mindfulness practice helps us to work with our thoughts in two very important ways.
First, become aware of the constant torrent of thoughts cascading through our mind.
Most of us cannot even list twenty of the thoughts we had in the last hour. We have 2,000 to 3,000 thoughts each hour that we are not aware of. With mindfulness we can become more aware of our thoughts and the contents of our own thoughts. This is our internal soundtrack. We need to notice our habits of mind and how repetitive our thinking is. Simply listen to your thoughts with mindful awareness. It is like you are watching that thought on a movie screen. Here it is again. You will see the evanescent nature of thoughts, that they are fleeting ideas, all impermanent.
So, the question you want to ask yourself is: “What is going on right now?” If you are always planning for the future and want to enjoy the present, you may develop the habit of asking yourself “What is going on right now? What am I seeing? What am I hearing? What am I feeling? What am I sensing?” Pay close attention to whether you are adding on to that. 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.
Thoughts are simply what our minds do, they are neither good nor bad. It is our relationship with our thoughts that is important. It is essential to be aware of these thoughts, as they are a driving force in our mood, behavior, and, ultimately, our life.
Second, we learn to extricate ourselves from the stories we are constantly creating.
We must develop the skills to disentangle ourselves from all our thoughts. We can realize that just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to believe it—much less act on it—and certainly not 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, we have a two to three second head start to turn on our prefrontal cortex to analyze the thought rather than reacting from our amygdala. This allows us to not identify with or become lost in the thought. The sensations in the body are our bell of mindfulness. Something is coming up that you should pay attention to. We can stop and take a breath to look at things more clearly. 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 my mind wanders again and again, “I am getting more practice bringing my mind back.”
Realize that just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to believe it—much less act on it—and certainly not get caught up in the whole stream of them. When you have a thought, ask yourself, “What am I believing” When I have the thought, “I am a terrible meditator.”, what am I believing? It might be that “I am not good enough; I am never going to be successful at anything.” We have deep beliefs about ourselves that make us insecure. These beliefs may not be evident on the surface in each situation; truthfully, we’re often unaware of their presence. But their poisonous footprint often manifests itself in our anger, blame, depression, and shame.
When thoughts bring up uncomfortable feelings, we may want to ask ourselves, “Can I let this experience just be?”Allowing our experience to just be requires a critical understanding: that it’s more painful to try to push away our own pain than it is to feel it.
The reason we are so interested in our thoughts is because we don’t want to create more mental suffering for ourselves or anyone else. Our mental suffering comes from desperately holding on to our thinking and beliefs. We want to still ourselves by practicing meditation so we can become aware of all that is going on. We want to slow down the mental chatter so we can see what is happening. We want to rest in the spacious embrace of the loving heart instead of getting lost in the negative thoughts.
Meditation is a tool to get intentional use of attention and awareness. We want to see what we are paying attention to and be aware of what is going on. All we are doing when we are meditating is choosing what we are going to attend to, and how we are going to attend to it. Remember the point of mindfulness is not to get rid of thoughts, but to learn to see the stories of our mind and change our relationship to them. If we are aware of the story, we can decide whether we want to remain lost in the story, whether we want to believe the story and whether we want to allow that story to influence our words, our actions and therefore our lives. By doing so we become the author of the next chapter.