Mindfulness of the Process of Thought Development
You’ve probably had the experience of seeing a man, whom you’ve never met, and you’ve instantly had a story about him pop into your mind. He may be too fat, thin, selfish, mean or even happy. You’ve also had the experience of seeing food, a type of car, clothing, art, or jewelry and suddenly your inner voice is telling a story about how much you want the item or don’t want it.
Your inner voice will pop up commenting, criticizing, or comparing, when you talk to another person, forget to go to the bank, go off your diet, buy something, look in the mirror, or do pretty much anything. That inner voice is often harsh and may say that you yourself are mean, stupid, ugly, not worthy, unlovable or wrong. It comments on everything.
As you have previously discovered you are never just dealing with an original event as it is, you only see it through the lens of your experience and belief system. It’s very helpful to examine the process of how you got from the initial event (seeing a person, eating food, talking to someone) to the inner voice and the story that popped up around this event.
By asking your mind to explore and identify this process, you distance yourself from the story’s content and your emotional identification with it. Your mind becomes more interested in the task of finding and following the sequence of events from original perception to subsequent story. When you examine the process itself, you’re examining something that now will seem to be taking place outside of you, instead of something that is representative of you personally.
You can learn to “externalize,” or examine something, as someone looking at it from a distance. Not only will you benefit from a more thorough understanding of your own reactions, you will be able to then act from a position of non-identification. You’re free to become mindfully aware of what happened and how it happened and then you’re free to choose how you would like to respond.
What’s the sensation and what’s the story?
I find that just bringing mindfulness to the mental state alone, may not be effective enough to make me really let go of the story. I may be able to identify the emotion or thought (e.g., fear, anger, sadness) but it’s still my fear, my anger, or my sadness. It can be hard sometimes, when a story is making me very emotional, to not personally identify with my own tall-tale as having more than a little truth. This is where identifying the process from sensation to story can be really helpful.
I was out shopping the other day and I found a phone that was really expensive. I bought it and shortly after that my mind started to say, “How could I have bought that phone? It was way too expensive. I didn’t need one that fancy. I made a bad choice. That was the wrong thing to do!” My mind was telling me that I had done something wrong and I believed it. I was feeling anxious.
Where did this story come from? My parents were immigrants and had to work hard when they came to this country. The message I learned when I was young was that it was important to save money and not spend it. It made no difference that I was an adult and a doctor and could certainly afford the phone. To my mind, I had not followed the part of my belief system that deals with saving and I had made a big mistake.
However, my mistake was not purchasing the phone. My mistake was getting caught up in my own story about the purchase, a story that was filled with guilt and stress. The stress was created because I believed the story my mind was telling me about what I had done. I gave my mind the task of trying to identify the original sensation and the subsequent story with its associated emotional and physical reaction. This allowed me to step out of the storyline and the subsequent drama created from the ownership of the story. I could then choose whether I wanted to keep the phone, or return it, based on a more realistic assessment of the purchase.
Your mind is very quick, so you often just hear your mind’s story without ever identifying the original event that started the whole thing. You can train your mind to look for the initial sensation and the subsequent story. Mindfulness is a technique that allows you to observe how your mind works in order to help relieve stress.
Unless you are aware of what’s happening all you might hear from your mind is that you are hopeless and bad. At this point you need to look at the process of how your mind is functioning. Ask, “What’s the sensation and what’s the story?” My response, in this instance, might be:
- The sensation was I bought a phone.
- The story is that I made a mistake and I am bad.
In reviewing this chain of events, from initial sensation or perception, to a massive and emotional concept or story, it will become apparent that your stories may have no true sense of connection, or relevance to what you initially experienced.
Another example might be when you’re watching TV and you don’t get out for a walk or run. Your inner voice may say, “Look what you just did. You sat around watching TV. Don’t you know that you’re supposed to be exercising? You’re so hopeless. You’ll never lose weight. You’re fat, lazy and hopeless.”
By asking yourself, “What was the sensation and what was the story?” you’ll quickly see the grand leap of judgment from just choosing to watch TV to being a horrible, hopeless individual. Identifying sensation and story allows you to see how your mind can make up stories that are unbelievable and grossly over-exaggerated. Discover your initial perception or sensation and follow the process by which a story emerges. You’ll be better able to really understand that when a story appears, it doesn’t mean that it comes from a place of wisdom, that it’s helpful, or that it’s even necessarily true.
The initial internal or external sensation may not even be that significant all by itself, but your mind creates its stories around the event. These stories are based on how the event compares to your internalized belief system. You unconsciously are asking yourself, “Is what I see, hear, feel, touch, smell or think considered to be in agreement with what I believe already? Do I feel safe? ”
The initial experience rapidly becomes, not about the person, sensation, object or thought that started the whole cascade, but rather about the story you have created in response. These stories may not accurately reflect what’s really happening at the moment. Remember, that your internal belief system was a learned response and its purpose was originally to maintain your parents’ love and acceptance. You make rapid judgments about present events by gauging to what degree new events agree, or fit in, with your past beliefs.
Identify what actually happened; that you bought a phone, or watched TV instead of going for a run. Recognize that you then created a story about it. Finally, refocus on the original event more mindfully and with greater openness and acceptance.
The idea is to let go of your creation, your story. When you let go of the story, you can finally see that the only truth of the situation rests in the original sensation or perception. Apply this concept to stressful events and watch your stories crumble into the imaginary dust that is their true nature. It’s going to take practice, but every time you succeed in de-stressing, even a little bit, it’s a huge victory for both your body and your peace of mind.
Another thing that often happens is that your mind has a characteristic way of reacting to a situation that is specific to you personally. You may only become aware of your characteristic reaction when it reaches the point of causing your inner voice to make a final remark or criticism. All you may be aware of is this final remark, this judgmental statement. You may not be conscious of the underlying process that began with an initial sensation and continued through the subsequent story, only to finally arrive at this judgmental statement.
Some of the common judgmental statements are:
- I am so bad
- This is terrible
- I can’t believe I did that
- I am always making a fool of myself
- This is horrible
- I am in real trouble
- I hate myself
- I am so stupid
- I am hopeless
Your personal characteristic reaction is like a habit. It’s a process by which you arrive at a judgmental statement that you then hear in your mind. All that you are likely aware of is this negative, judgmental statement and its associated feeling. Many times, you might not even remember what triggered your reaction. The initiating event could have been an internal thought triggered by a memory, or it could have been an external sensation and your reaction to it. However, when you consciously try to figure out what might have been the initial sensation and what story you told yourself about it, your mind then has a task to do. This task creates some space between the real you and the self-critical, demeaning comments that your mind makes during its characteristic reactions. You will begin to see that there is this repetitive pattern to how your mind works. With practice you can start to see this sequence in action as it unfolds.
Your personal, characteristic reaction-sequence does not necessarily result in a judgmental statement. Your personal pattern of reaction might be expressed in a nonverbal way. You may just feel depressed, sad or scared. You may feel a physical sense of what you are experiencing. When you become aware of negative emotions, or atypical physical symptoms, tracking backwards in search of an underlying story or process can be very helpful.
Somewhat less common than the self-critical, judgmental mind is its cousin the comparing mind. When your mind is comparing, it tells you that you are better than whatever it is that you are comparing yourself to. For example your mind might say:
- Look at those terrible jeans he is wearing.
- She is driving a beat up Ford.
- He is really fat.
- She is so messy when she eats.
- He only makes _____ dollars.
With this type of comment, your inner child is comparing itself to something in the external environment, or to a thought or image that has arisen internally. Even though you might not be consciously aware of the full, internal conversation, there is a series of additional unspoken comments that accompany such a comparison. What has not been said, but is intuitively known, is the full comparative statement.
To understand the full comparative statement you would examine the fact to story process. You’d fill in the gaps between what the original fact was, such as watching someone eat, and then examine what that meant to you. What becomes evident is that the very statements that make you feel superior also make you feel safe and worthy.
Let’s look at the previous group of comparative comments. This time we’ll fill in the unspoken statements that accompany a comparative comment, in other words, what is known but not being said.
- Look at those terrible jeans he is wearing.
- I own a designer pair of jeans. I dress better than he does. I am way more elegant.
- She is driving a beat up Ford.
- I drive an Accura. I have a better car. I am more successful.
- He is so fat.
- I am thinner. I am healthier and look better.
- She is so messy when she eats.
- I am more careful when I eat. I am not a slob.
- He only makes _____ dollars.
- I make more money than that. I am wealthier than he is.
When you catch yourself making a comparative comment, don’t let it race through your mind unexamined. Stop the comment in its tracks and be mindful of what triggered the comment and the unspoken, implied thoughts that are really a part of the full statement. Consider the initial trigger. Look for the story. Be mindful of the process by which the comparative comment came to be voiced.
Normally, when you practice mindfulness you are being mindful of a mental, emotional or physical state. In practicing mindfulness of a process, you are bringing your awareness to how the state is being created. It’s easier to be less invested in, or attached to, a process, the process of sensation to story. Let go of the story and the stress that comes with judging, comparing and criticizing will also be released.
Clinging To or Letting Go of the Story
You have a truly amazing mind. You’re capable of inventing and getting caught up in your own story but you can also witness the story from the perspective of your observing mind. Normally you unconsciously identify and take ownership of the inciting sensation, or deny it and push it away. However the other conscious option is to practice mindfulness and allow it to pass by as just another thought.
You can use this aspect of “clinging to,” or “letting go of,” your stories as an object of your mindful awareness. The act of clinging, or letting go, becomes another part of the process of how your mind works. Bring your attention and analysis to this process and it will become another interesting task for your mind to follow. This will also provide you with a sense of distance from an emotional episode. When your mind has a job to do, the focus is on the task and not the content of the story.
Imagine you have just eaten a piece of pizza and it wasn’t on your diet. Your mind is saying that you are bad and useless. At that point, you have a choice. You can believe and take ownership of the self-judgment, or you can allow the judgement to pass by without identifying with it.
When an emotion arises, bring mindfulness to how you’re responding. Ask yourself, “What’s my relationship to the story?” Are you clinging or letting go? Fully experience how you’re relating to the story mentally and physically. Are you becoming the story, owning the pain, fear, anger etc.? Or are you able to just observe the mental state without identifying with it? Can it simply pass by like the wind?
Is there an urgency, resignation, or heaviness to your thoughts? Is there a squeezing, or gripping feeling in your belly? Are you sweating? Is your heartbeat rapid, or your shoulders tense? Bring mindfulness to another layer of your complex, thinking mind.
Making a Choice: What needs to be done now?
Mindfulness is not just about bringing awareness to what you’re experiencing and how your mind works. It provides you with an opportunity to make a more conscious and wise choice about how to respond to what your mind is presenting. This pivotal choice-point comes at the interface of the awareness between what’s happening and your response. Observe how your mind works as it creates stories that are based on a childhood belief system and then distorts reality. Now you can start to make adult rather than child-based choices. You have the ability at that critical juncture to either go blindly along with whatever your mind says, or to choose a healthier path.
Here’s another example. Your mind has just started to say, “How could you have said that? That was horrible. What a mistake you made. You’ll never live that down!” Typically, you might have reacted with a sense of ownership of these statements and continued the negative train of thought. Naturally, this would have increased your anxiety and fear. However, by using mindfulness, at the point of awareness, you could now ask, “What needs to be done now?” You’re calling on a wiser, more balanced, part of your consciousness, which may give you the answer. Often the answer is to do nothing and just let the current mind-state pass.
The significance in calling on this part of your consciousness is that you are choosing to step out of the constant self-referencing of all experience, the self-referencing that leads to your stress and pain. This “stepping out”, will allow you to be with what is, for what it is, rather than having to endure whatever stress and drama you create from it. You really do have a choice.
What remains after the clinging goes?
The last aspect of the process of thought development involves bringing mindfulness to what remains when the clinging goes. As you’ve already discovered, no thought or emotion stays forever. It will ultimately pass on. At that moment when the identification has passed and before the next sensation arises what do you experience? Ask yourself, “What remains after the clinging goes?”
There is a sense of stillness that exists in between the various thoughts that you have. It’s a wonderful place to rest and experience the world. Bring mindfulness to this moment and experience physically in your body what stillness feels like. You can use this physical memory as an anchor to gauge whether you’re clinging to, or letting go of, what you’re experiencing.
What you’re really doing with mindfulness and the other suggestions that you’ve read so far, is discovering how your own mind functions. You have an initial provoking perception, or sensation, but then your mind takes over. The thoughts that arise appear spontaneously. It’s like playing an old pinball game where your thoughts are the ball. You eject the ball into play and then it follows its own course, banking off one pillar and then the next, until it finally exits. The initial sensation is received by your mind and then it’s shaped by previous memories and beliefs, until a story is created that exits into your consciousness.
Thinking is simply a conditioned, automatic process, operating independently of conscious control. It’s a mental function. You’re not your thoughts!
Bringing mindfulness to the process of thinking is a wonderful way to get your mind to follow what’s actually happening. It gives you some much-needed distance and stops you from identifying with what’s happening.
Mindfulness of the Flow of the Energy of Thoughts
When you brought mindfulness to the breath, as you recall, you just followed the breath and its qualities. You can bring this same mindfulness to the flow of the energy of your thoughts. When a chain of thought arises, step out of the content and just observe and feel the energy of the thoughts, how the intensity changes, how it quickly rises and then fades away and how long it lasts. You are not interested in the content. You are feeling the energy of the mind.
Remember the technique of labeling your thoughts and feelings? As you become more experienced in mindfulness the ability to engage your experience mindfully without using labeling will allow you to be present to what is being experienced in its pure form. When you introduce a label such as happy, sad, angry, fearful etc. there is an associated, personal, conditioned value that goes with the label which can influence your connection to what is being experienced.
Mindfulness, without labeling, allows a greater awareness of the ebb and flow of the energy and intensity of your thoughts in their pure form. Once again, this awareness will help you to get some much-needed distance from the thoughts that are the source of your stress.
- Over the course of the next week be especially mindful of your emotions.
- When an emotional episode occurs, see if you can recognize the initial thought or sensation, as opposed to the story and thoughts that came after.
- See if you can recognize some pivotal choice points between your awareness of what’s happening and your response.
- When a negative train of thought arises, ask yourself, “What needs to be done now?”
- Your inner voice is always commenting, criticizing, or comparing and is often harsh and judgmental.
- It’s helpful to examine the process of how you got from the initial event (seeing a person, eating food, talking to someone) to the inner voice and the story that popped up around this event.
- By asking yourself, “What was the sensation and what was the story?,” you’re free to become mindfully aware of what happened, how it happened and then to choose how best to react.
- Mindfully observing, “What’s my relationship to the story?” you can determine if you’d prefer to cling to, or let go of, related negative thoughts and emotions.
- There’s a pivotal choice point, at the interface of the awareness between what’s happening and your response, where you can ask yourself, “What needs to be done now?”
- There’s a sense of stillness that exists between the thoughts that you have and you will discover this stillness when you stop clinging to the stories that the inner voice is telling you.