Someone was asking me at the weekend about mindfulness who’d never come across it before. I explained about how it involves noticing when you’re thinking about the past or the future and then bringing your attention back to the present moment.
He said he was a big thinker. He can happy sit on a train whilst everyone else is on their smartphones, thinking, or sit in a bar by himself pondering about life. Is that a bad thing, he asked. Is thinking bad?
Of course being able to think is an incredibly powerful and useful tool we have as human beings. In my experience, though, when we’re thinking a lot it’s normally because we’re worrying and if we have few thoughts it’s because the mind is calm and therefore able to be at rest.
We can all relate to lying awake at night wishing there was a way of stopping thinking so that we could conk out. People often have the same experience when they meditate – they want to stop their thoughts.
A lot of the time, when we worry, we’re thinking about what might happen or what people might be thinking with very little evidence that things are as bad as we’re imagining or rather, catastrophising.
It’s helpful to recognise that the mind is a compulsive story-teller. It’s Jackanory time, all day every day. Have a look these statements:
Sam hears an alarm.
She went downstairs for breakfast.
She was worried about her class.
She wasn’t sure she’d be able to control them.
No one stops and thinks “Right, there’s someone in this story called Sam, but we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl yet. Let’s wait and see.” Or “We know she’s got a class but not if she’s a teacher or pupil, maybe we’ll find out.” Your mind just decides! It starts imagining what they look like, what the situation might be and filling in all these details with made up information.
This has a positive side to it – having an imagination means we can be creative and invent stories to explain things or entertain each other.
But often, we fill in the gaps in knowledge about our own lives with something negative. Someone doesn’t reply to our text, we think we’ve said something wrong and they’re angry. Turns out they were just in a meeting. Our boss or client is about to give us some feedback and before they start speaking we imagine all the worst things they might possibly say. They say, “Great job, really impressed.” Phew! There was no need to worry!
There’s a simple technique for breaking the cycle of worry and rumination (having the same thoughts again and again and again…), which is to switch from thinking mode to sensing mode.
When we’re thinking we disconnect from our senses, so to calm the thoughts, a practice that helps you to feel sensations in your body can really help.
One such technique is called 7/11. Breathe normally, but as you breathe in count in your head up to seven, and as you breathe out count up to eleven. Repeat it as many times as you like. Just doing it once can help but ten times will be more effective.
You’re taking your attention away from your thoughts and to the physical sensation of breathing. It may also have the affect of lengthening your breaths, which is itself calming.
It’s a very simple practice. The challenging part is remembering to do it!