In the last chapter, you were introduced to the fact that once your mind starts thinking that there’s a threat, something going wrong in your internal or external environment, it starts a physical process in your body whose initial purpose is to help you to better deal with that threat. If you don’t think that the threat is gone, then your body begins to not work as well, bit-by-bit, until eventually you’ll need a doctor. However, the initial perception of a threat occurs in your mind as a thought. What one person thinks is very threatening and stressful someone else may not.
Mika, my patient from Thailand, for example, grew up with very deadly snakes in her home country and has been afraid of them since childhood. Larry has a pet snake and it sits wrapped around his shoulders and watches TV with him. What Mika thinks of as stressful, in this case the sight of a snake, Larry thinks of as fun or interesting. Their thoughts about the same snake are very different.
So if stress is dependant on your thoughts about something, let’s take a look at thoughts, what they are and where they come from. Some insights into how your mind works can help you better manage the stress in your life.
I’m going to lead you through some exercises that will open the door to understanding your own thought processes. This is a step-by-step journey of personal discovery that will give you an understanding of your own mind, the driver of your actions.
How many thoughts do you have?
The average person has about 60,000 thoughts a day. Further, 90% of these thoughts are the same repetitive notions playing over and over. You’re constantly thinking, but most people are not consciously aware of the type of thought passing through, how often it comes around, or what triggers that particular thought. Your mind is like a popcorn machine, constantly popping up thoughts, but you’re only consciously aware of a small percentage of them.
Let’s try something. See if you can count every thought that comes into your consciousness. Even if the thoughts seem to be something along the lines of the following:
• “This is stupid.”
• “I wonder how long it’s been.”
• “I need to do laundry and get to the store.”
• “Is that one thought or two?”
Just try to count them as best you can.
Set a timer for two minutes. There are countdown timers available online, as various apps, or you can set an egg timer, watch, or cell-phone timer. Close your eyes. Count your thoughts and return to reading the book after you’re through.
How many thoughts did you have? Were you surprised by how many you had? They certainly aren’t permanent. If you wait long enough a new thought will always come up. Imagine how many thoughts you’re not even aware of.
As you begin to observe your mind, you’ll notice that it’s always active and that it tends to say the same things over and over again. Let’s admit it, most of the time we all have pretty boring minds.
You probably get so caught up in your thoughts, just by force of habit, that even when you’re sitting silently you’re not really at rest. If you mention to someone that you’re going to go away on a silent retreat, often his or her initial reaction is, “I couldn’t do that. I could never sit still. My mind is always thinking.” Of course it is! Thinking is what the mind does. It’s the natural function of the mind, but you’re not necessarily at its mercy.
What’s the nature of your thoughts?
Once you start looking in on your thoughts you’ll probably notice that most of them seem to be about reliving the past, or planning for/imagining the future. Few of them tend to be about the present moment.
Let’s jump right into another exercise. When a thought pops up, I want you to name the time period when it seems to be occurring. You can say past, present, or future.
Set your timer for two minutes again. Close your eyes and note when, in time, your thoughts are occurring. Return to the book when you’re done.
Were your thoughts predominantly about events that happened in the past? Were your thoughts predominantly about events that may occur in the future? Or were they focused on the present moment as it unfolded?
The future hasn’t happened and therefore doesn’t exist as yet and the past has already gone by and therefore also doesn’t exist in the here and now. The present, this very moment, is the only time that you have any real control over. If your thoughts tend, as most do, to the future or the past, you’re missing out on a lot of the right now. You’re generally not fully present to the beauty of the only moment in time that truly exists!
Another aspect of thought is that it’s largely concerned with judging, comparing and criticizing. Your mind is constantly evaluating every external and internal situation that you encounter.
Here’s another exercise to help you understand your own thoughts. This time you’re going to pick a word that basically describes what the thought is about as it happens. Say something to yourself like criticizing, or planning, or worrying, or judging, or remembering. You don’t have to say your description words out loud but you can if you like.
Set your trusty timer for two minutes. Close your eyes. Note what your thoughts are about and return to the text when you’re done.
So what were your thoughts about? Were they about an argument you had with your partner yesterday? Judging your boss for what he said to you? Criticizing yourself for something you did, or said, to your family? Minds are often not very friendly!
It’s important to become familiar with what your mind is saying to you. Try these short, two-minute exercises whenever you have a moment during the day. The more familiar you are with your own mind, the easier it will be for you to intervene in your stress responses.
How easy is it to be distracted by your thoughts?
Now that you’re getting a bit more familiar with your own mind, let’s try a few more experiments.
I would like you to close your eyes and simply observe your breath. This time, you’re going to count to ten. Breathe in and out. That counts as one cycle. Mentally count one. Another cycle of inhalation and exhalation is number two and mentally count two. Continue like this to a count of ten. If a different thought arises, other than mentally watching your breath-cycles and counting them, then start right back at the beginning at one. Simple right?
It’s important that you really try to do all of the experiments and practice suggestions in this book. Real positive change comes from doing, not just from reading.
Give this breath exercise a try right now and then return to the book when you’re through. Set your timer for two minutes and close your eyes.
So how far did you get? Sometimes I can’t get beyond one or two breath-cycles before another thought pops up! Your mind is constantly thinking and as amazing as it is, you probably can’t even maintain your concentration for ten breaths. It can be very difficult for you to develop the concentration to be mentally present and fully aware of what’s going on in the here and now. Your mind is like a little hummingbird, flitting from one sensation, thought or perception to the next. Your thoughts are very powerful and can easily pull you away from what you’re doing. You can get carried away into your various mental worlds at the drop of a hat, which leads us to the next concept.
Can your thoughts be just on the present moment?
As it turns out, both Eastern and Western observations confirm that we all have the ability to focus attention on what’s happening in the present moment, right in the here and now, and that when we do so, it silences and calms the mind. Even if you only manage this present-focus for a short period of time, what time you do spend in the present, is time that takes away from the habitual thoughts of the past or future. Contemplating the past and the future also just happens to be where most of your stressful thoughts arise. You probably worry most about either what’s going to happen or what has already happened. What’s happening right now, in this very instant, is likely considerably less stressful.
Let’s try an experiment to see if you can bring those pesky, flitting little hummingbird-thoughts back into the present. Close your eyes tightly and bring all of your focus to the sensation of tension around your eyes. Squeeze your eyes even more tightly closed and feel which of your muscles are tightening in your face, between your eyes and in your forehead. Then just let it all go, release the tension and open your eyes.
Give this exercise a try right now and then return to the book when you’re through.
Try it again and really focus on scrunching your eyes closed and feeling the tension in your eyes as well as around them. When you fix your concentration on doing something like this, I think you’ll find that it pushes any other thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow right out of your mind. There’s just what’s happening right at this moment.
What is it that you like to do that you’re passionate about? Is it skiing, dancing, cooking, painting, gardening, photography or playing hockey? At those times when you’re deeply engrossed in a favourite activity does time stand still, or do other thoughts come into your consciousness? When you’re totally present in what you are doing, the only thoughts that exist tend to be about the activity you are engaged in. You already have the ability to quiet your mind and make it focus and that just happens to be a characteristic of the human mind that you can put to use for reducing your stress. I know what you’re saying is probably something like, “So scrunching my eyes reduces stress?” and the simple answer is, well yes it does, but it’s just a small part of a bigger picture.
Are thoughts permanent?
As you’ve no doubt noticed during the preceding exercises, thoughts come and go very frequently. Most of us normally do not have the ability to consistently maintain concentration on one thought. Even if you’re generally feeling sad, angry, or happy, within a short time your mind will still drift from thought to thought. If each thought is that important and meaningful why don’t thoughts stay around longer than they do? The tricky thing about any thought is that while you find yourself immersed in it, it feels permanent. It feels as though it’s the complete picture, your total reality. You feel as if it will last forever. However, if you wait it out, often just a little longer, that thought will actually pass and then you’ll have, at least temporarily, a break from it.
If you can think of your thoughts as clouds that form and change, vanish and reform, rather than as things that are true, absolute and permanent, it may help you to de-stress. A lot of what you’re thinking when you’re stressed is just a string of hypothetical ‘what-ifs’. When you bring some awareness to a particularly stressful moment, you can let the natural inclination of the mind to move on, work to your advantage.
Now I’d like you to really consider how long a thought actually tends to last for you personally and whether or not it’s something that’s permanent and unchanging. See if you can experience your thought’s cloud-like, temporary nature.
Let’s try this experiment. Keep track of your thoughts. Specifically, observe how long they last, how they change or jump around and how sometimes they just pass away and another thought comes up to take their place.
Set your timer again for two minutes. Close your eyes and note how long your thoughts last.
Were any of your thoughts permanent?
The Nature of Thoughts
Where is a thought?
What is a thought?
Can you touch it?
Can you feel it?
Empty of form
When a thought comes
Does it hold you tightly?
Real as steel
Full of form
Thought is empty
Thought has form
Is thought empty form?
Is thought formed emptiness?
What is true?
What is real?
Where do thoughts come from?
When you start observing your thoughts, you might notice that they seem to arise spontaneously without an apparent thinker behind them. It may seem that your mind is working independently of you, or your conscious control. It might even seem like your mind has a mind of its own!
Let’s meet your mind again in the following exercise. Bring your attention to your thoughts as they arise and keep in mind whether you’re consciously and intentionally producing these thoughts yourself, or whether they are just arising spontaneously.
You know the routine. Set your timer for a two-minute commitment. Close your eyes and this time notice if you’re consciously and purposely producing your thoughts.
Did you know what your mind was going to say ahead of time? Where did the thoughts seem to be coming from? Who or what’s generating the thoughts? If you were generating your thoughts why wouldn’t you know what your next thought was going to be? Just think about it for a couple of minutes and see where it takes you.
Does one thought lead to another?
Your thoughts are like a game of dominos, one domino hitting another domino that then creates this train of thoughts. It’s as if the thoughts are being produced independently of any person behind them. What goes on in one thought, triggers a relationship to another thought that then presents itself. For example, you may be outside one day and see a bird. From your memory, the image triggers your history with and knowledge of, that type of bird. Something like the following internal conversation might take place:
What a beautiful bird! I remember seeing that bird when I was on holiday. I really should plan a holiday for this winter. I hate the cold of winter. I need to buy a new winter jacket because the one I have isn’t warm enough. I really was pretty stupid in buying that last winter jacket. It cost way too much and it really wasn’t what I wanted. How could I have made such a mistake? I do that all the time.
Just from seeing a bird you could end up anywhere!
It’s a real discovery to understand that, what’s on your mind is really just a flow of thoughts, each triggering the next, without any conscious activity, or sometimes even any real meaning, necessarily behind it. Thoughts seem to have a life and energy of their own. In response to an external or internal sensation, a thought arises, which triggers a memory of another event that then leads to a subsequent thought. Each thought is dependent on the preceding thought until a new sensation comes along.
Thoughts are just reflections of a complex interplay between physiological and psychological activity and are based on your previous experiences and patterns. By recognizing that your thoughts actually occur independently, in a meandering and domino-like fashion, they should have less power over you. You can observe thought production as a process occurring outside of your conscious control, like your heartbeat, or your fingernail growth. You’re simply watching a game of dominos. Your thoughts are not you; they are just passing through.
Let’s try this exercise to examine the flow of your thoughts. Try to notice how one thought is related to the next. See if you can recognize when one thought has triggered another. See if you can get a feeling for the whole domino effect.
Set your timer for two minutes. Close your eyes. Notice if there’s a connection between your thoughts and return to this chapter after you’ve finished.
Were you able to see if there was a connection between one thought and the next? We all have deeply embedded memories of our experiences and there are multiple, unconscious, mental connections that occur between these memories.
In an attempt to train your mind to start becoming aware of the nature of your thoughts on a more regular basis, here are a few more exercises that I suggest you set some time aside to do every day.
- Whenever a thought arises and you’re consciously aware of it, simply note to yourself the word ‘thinking’.
- Take five to ten minutes in the morning before getting up, or in the evening before going to sleep, to observe your mind and its thoughts. Sometimes this exercise is harder to do if you’re tired but see what works best for you. Observe how your thoughts arise spontaneously, are often connected to the preceding thought and are impermanent in nature. Focus on the idea that ‘your thoughts are not you, they are just passing through’.
- Pick something that will serve as a cue for you that occurs during your average day and use it as a reminder to simply observe your thoughts for a moment before you act on them, just as you’ve been doing throughout this chapter. Your cue could be as simple as sitting down to eat a meal, getting ready to go for a walk, picking up your phone to make a call, going into the bathroom, sitting in your car for a moment before driving, whatever works for you. Stick a Post-it note up somewhere to remind you that it’s your intention to focus on your thoughts in that situation. Make it a habit and do what it takes to make it stick!
- You have many, many thoughts in a day.
- You’re probably not often aware of your thoughts.
- You’re usually thinking about the past and planning for the future but are not often really present to the moment that’s actually happening right now.
- Thoughts are often evaluating, criticizing or judging your experience.
- Thoughts have a temporary, impermanent nature.
- Thoughts arise spontaneously.
- Thoughts trigger other thoughts based on your previously conditioned experiences and habits.