Many of us feel that our thoughts are out of our control. We think about work long after we have left, we worry about the future and keep going over things that have gone wrong in the past. Meanwhile, life seems to be slipping by.
Modern psychology also recognises that compulsive thinking can lead us into stress, anxiety and depression. Worrying about our problems seems important, but it leaves us feeling worse and believing we have less power to change things.
Mindfulness helps by giving us the mental space to stand back, recognise what’s happening and explore alternatives. Here are some helpful approaches associated with mindfulness and meditation.
1. Learning to let go of thoughts
Even a short period of meditation shows that focusing the mind on the body and the breath leaves you feeling calmer and more settled. Everyone finds that thoughts arise in their minds and the practice involves gently guiding our attention back to the breath. In doing this again and again we are learning to let go of thoughts and regain control of what our minds are doing.
2. Noticing that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts
Troubling thoughts reinforce a powerful belief about our situation: I must keep going; only I can do this; if this fails it will be a disaster. Thoughts like this are associated with stress. There is something wrong with me; it has all gone wrong; here I go again. Thoughts like this tend to foster depression.
When we think like this, we believe that the thought is telling us the truth: I really must keep going; there really is something wrong with me. The practice of letting go of thoughts allows us to stand back from them. Then we see that they are just thoughts and we can explore them without necessarily believing them. For many people this is a revelation. It’s liberating to see that thoughts are not facts, just things that happen in the mind. Seeing thoughts in this way makes them less powerful. Then you can explore them, asking if they are true and discovering what you really believe.
- “Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.”
- How to get rid of resentment
- “Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read.”
- Using thought to still thought
3. Accepting difficult thoughts
Often we know it’s unhelpful to keep thinking in certain ways and tell ourselves I wish I could switch off, or I must stop worrying. But we end up like the person who tries not to think about pink elephants. The more we try to control our thoughts by force, the stronger they grow. Our whole life can seem like a fight and battling with thoughts is part of this.
Mindfulness training encourages us to accept that troubling thoughts are a part of our experience, rather than fighting them. We learn to notice these thoughts when they come up without pursuing them or believing that they are true. We can even befriend them.
People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) experience this especially strongly and mindfulness can be very helpful in working with these conditions. It also helps in avoiding slipping back into depression, which is why medical practitioners recommend Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy to avoid relapsing into depression.
4. Thinking Clearly and Creatively
Of course, thinking isn’t always unhelpful. Reflection, analysis and clarity are all very important. Mindfulness can help us to think more clearly because we are less prone to distractions and more able to notice when feelings are colouring our thoughts. It also fosters creativity because it opens up the connections between thinking, feeling and intuition.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘A man should learn to detect and watch the glimmer of light that flashes across his mind from within.’ Those glimmers are there in all of us: messages from the part of us that truly understands and sees connections and possibilities. That is the basis of creativity. The faculty that lets us detect and watch those glimmers is mindfulness.
Hi vishvapani. I’ve recently been experimenting with substituting a fearful thought (I have had a lot of these following the unexpected death of a friend) with a hopeful one. But this can swing my mood dramatically, almost too much so! I suppose we all like good feelings but I wonder if I’m just veering between hindrances?
I suffer from anxiety. And I always over think on my life itself. Always over think why am I living, howcome I am here, howcome I am breathing. My whole life is one big question to me and honestly it feels as if I am losing myself. Everywhere I go! Literally! Everywhere I go I always convince myself I am me, and I always will be! Can you please email me and try to help me?
I need my life back and stop thinking! Thank you.
I take a different view. I love the fact that I cannot stop thinking. I love thinking. I consider it a gift from God and it helps me to have a productive scientific career. I never realized people think this is a problem, for me it is a blessing!
Thinking can certainly be wonderful, and I love thinking. But for some people thinking is out of control and a curse. When your thoughts constantly generate despair, anxiety, and depression it’s no fun. I think all of us are prone to that at one time or another.
Although I love thinking, there’s a deeper level of stillness that can come when we let go of it and simply be with our experience. This experience is deeply refreshing and joyful, and it’s the direction we’re moving in in meditation.
I can’t stop thinking and I feel so tired about my thinking all day long.
get so much nervous from thinking even don’t know about what
hello. i feel very anxious all time. think about past relationships whether he still think about me . i should move on or go back to him. convince him to come back. i know he dosn’t bother about me nd he never did. i hve to study and i am unable to do it. plzz help!
It’s not an easy thing to change the way your mind works, Mimansa, but it’s even harder if you don’t try. Set aside some time every day for meditation, learn to recognize when your mind is doing things that make you unhappy and learn to bring your attention back to your direct sensory experience of the body. As you continue practicing this you’ll find that you get better at letting go of unhelpful thoughts outside of meditation too.