With this high volume of mental activity, not all of our thoughts can be true, useful, or noteworthy. We often act like our thoughts are gospel truth and allow them to dictate our moods and reactions. We are human, and that’s what we do, until we have a method, rationale, or motivation to do otherwise.
Our modern technological age provides a constant stream of input and stimuli. Techniques for observing and quieting the mind are becoming more mainstream as an antidote to a frenetic modern pace. It may feel initially boring and tedious to observe your thoughts and attendant reactions, if you are accustomed to a high level of stimulation and distraction. Over time, however, you may become fascinated with the laboratory of the self.
The first step is just to notice. Be an observer of your own thinking process and thought content. If people are honest, they admit that some of their thoughts are outlandish and crazy. Consider your thoughts and refute them. Dialogue with them when indicated. Slow down the process, and become curious. Examine your thoughts.
Awareness is the first step. Notice that your thoughts are incessant and unrelenting. It can be exhausting to realize that we think all the time. We can be a more active participant in the process, and change and redirect our inner dialogue. Thinking is truly a compulsive activity for the human, but with focus and attention we can assist in directing our thoughts in a way that feels better.
Sit or lie down in a quiet place and in a comfortable position. Imagine that you are standing on the shore, watching waves break and recede. Close your eyes or keep them open, with your gaze soft and relaxed. You are going to observe your train of thoughts in a similar manner as a spectator on the shore.
Let your mind do what it will. Take your hands off your mental steering wheel. Let your thoughts flow naturally and just notice and acknowledge thoughts as they come and go. Watch how one leads to another, building a logical thread or train, and how sometimes they seem disjointed or unrelated.
Notice how your thoughts can take you in different directions: pleasure, contentment, pain, discomfort, neutrality, boredom. Observe the constant activity and variety of the mental activity.
Another approach may be to imagine that you are at an amusement park, and your thoughts are the rides. You can see the rides and acknowledge their existence, but you are choosing not to get on the rides — that’s the qualitative difference.
Observing our thoughts from a detached and nonreactive stance allows us the possibility of new perspectives. The more you practice slowing down and simply noticing thoughts, the more you develop the potential to include them in your awareness in a fresh new way.
We cannot modify and redirect what we are unaware of; it can be initially quite shocking to track the movements of our unruly minds. Our minds respond to training. Daily practice is the key. Having a healthy respect for the power of our thoughts and confidence in our ability to use them as a source of information and empowerment is a viable goal.
Here’s an example of the process from my own life: I used to think that something was wrong with me because I was teaching anger management and still getting angry myself, especially in the car. Self-criticism and a sense of failure became unproductive mental companions.
To switch from the unproductive to the productive with self-talk went something like this:
“You are human and will get triggered by the environment and react. You seem to be consistently reactive when driving. How about accepting the fact that you will react and strive for catching it quickly when it comes up, and implementing some skills? Focusing on deep slow breathing works.”
That thought thread felt better and with consistent practice became the default response. If we don’t slow down the process and have a certain vigilance about our thoughts, we can end up following a thread that leads to nowhere and worse.
Our endless thinking makes us time travelers away from the here and now. Have you ever completely spaced out, for example when driving, and then caught yourself and asked “where did I go?” Well, your body did not go anywhere, but you took a trip in your mind.
We don’t have to be held hostage by our thoughts. It’s a matter of first becoming aware and then gently redirecting. We are not fighting the thoughts or getting them in a chokehold. The process is one of polite invitation and patient inquiry.
Become a creative partner with your thoughts and a responsible steward of them. Get started by observing and just pick one thought or thread per day to practice.