Ironically, we’re often unaware of what we’re paying attention to. And where our attention wanders can be anything but peaceful. At any moment your mind might be stuck on a record of negative, troublesome thoughts.
According to psychologist Gail Brenner, Ph.D, “you might be worrying about the future, ruminating about something that happened in the past, thinking about what you should have said or done.” You might be thinking about what others should or shouldn’t be doing, she said. You might be clinging to expectations about how life should be, which aren’t being met, she said.
All of this can create a whole lot of distress and suffering. Thankfully, “it’s possible to find peace in any moment,” Brenner said. The key is to become aware of where our attention goes. “When we realize we’re consumed in drama and negativity in our thoughts and feelings, we can make a different choice for where we put our attention,” Brenner said.
Below, she shared suggestions for shifting our attention, along with other tips, for finding peace in any moment.
1. Explore the kind of thoughts you’re thinking.
“Notice what thoughts are consuming your attention, and realize the effect of these thoughts: They affect your mood, how you are with people, the life decisions you make,” Brenner said.
For instance, all kinds of thoughts might be running through your mind, such as: “What am I going to do? Why did I do that? I can’t believe she said that to me! I’m furious about what happened to me in the past. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I have a good relationship? Why isn’t he a better partner? She shouldn’t be doing that. That’s stupid.”
2. Get curious.
Being curious involves asking questions and exploring your present experience, said Brenner, author of The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life. She shared this example: You’re thinking, “Oh, I feel afraid right now.” Instead of freaking out — “Oh my gosh! What am I going to do? This is so terrible!” — you approach your fear with ease.
You might say: “Hello, fear.” You also might ask these questions: “What is fear exactly? What story is it telling me? Is that story true? How do I feel in my body what I feel fear? What sensations are present? Do I have to make choices according to this fear or are there other options?”
3. Observe your thoughts — without getting wrapped up in them.
Getting caught up in the content of your thoughts takes you away from being present, Brenner said. Peace happens when you observe that you’re having these stories instead of getting involved in the stories, she said. Because this kind of observing is “steady, at peace and uncomplicated.”
Brenner shared this example of being aware of your thoughts: “Oh, there are a lot of thoughts, and they are telling me a story that’s not serving me or my happiness.”
4. Use your senses.
Pause, take a breath and shift your attention to things as they are right now, Brenner said. Ask yourself: What do I see, hear and feel? Using your senses helps you awaken to the present.
5. Savor powerful moments.
“Be on the lookout for spontaneous and natural experiences of joy, awe, wonder, tenderness, gratitude, heart-opening and clarity — and experience them deeply,” Brenner said.
Similarly, seek out things you enjoy. “Listen to how love, enthusiasm, aliveness, and creativity want to move you, and take action in this regard.”
6. Refocus on your body’s sensations.
When we’re experiencing strong feelings, we may ruminate about these feelings. Instead of fueling the cycle of negative thoughts, it’s more helpful to refocus on your body. (“The experience of every feeling includes physical sensations.”)
“Notice the physical sensations and let them be present as they are without needing to get rid of them.” Not resisting our experience and fully accepting it brings peace.
7. Re-evaluate your lifestyle.
Brenner suggested paying attention to your lifestyle and reducing the mental and emotional noise around you. How does how you’re currently living promote peace? How does it take away from it?
For instance, you might decide to make the following changes to promote peace, she said: drinking less; letting go of certain people; watching less news and fewer violent movies; and gossiping less to reduce the drama in your life.
Changing our ways isn’t easy. Naturally, it takes effort and lots of practice. Brenner stressed the importance of having patience and compassion with yourself. “Stay committed to your desire for peace. And if you’re having trouble making these changes on your own, don’t hesitate to seek professional help,” she said.
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