People often come to mindfulness wanting to ‘turn off’ their thoughts and to stop the constant brain buzz.
Unfortunately, trying to stop our thoughts is exhausting and often ineffective. Our approach of pushing against our experience and trying to make it different to how it is usually just generates more thoughts and sends us round and round in circles as we wonder why this keeps happening.
The good news is that we can quieten our minds but we need to take a different approach. We need to practise stepping out of automatic pilot mode. This is where the body is doing one thing and the mind is off somewhere else (usually going over past events or conversations or anticipating future scenarios). We’ve probably all had the experience of driving to work or the supermarket and having no recollection of the journey. A lot of our daily life may be made up of the same activities such as having a shower, cleaning our teeth, walking the dog, doing the dishes. These things are so familiar, and maybe we have labelled them as ‘ordinary’ or ‘mundane’ so we don’t pay attention to them. The body performs the activities and the mind wanders all over the place.
We need to learn to step out of this mode and to wake up to our experience no matter how mundane or ordinary it seems. We need to pay attention to the full range of our experience – what we can see, hear, smell, feel and taste – and we also need to notice the thoughts we are having. In the beginning, we may wonder why it is necessary to pay attention in this way – isn’t that a lot of effort and how can it be helpful in making me feel calmer? Well, it’s necessary because our thoughts drive us and have a deep influence on how we feel (and behave).
When we step out of automatic pilot mode, we make space for our awareness. With awareness, we can notice our thoughts and thought patterns and how they make us feel. This is very different to thinking about our thoughts and getting caught up in the ‘story’ of our thoughts. When we are caught up in our thoughts, we are, in effect, powerless and we get carried away with them into the past or the future – almost like a small boat that is carried down the river by the swift current. When we step out of the content of our thoughts and shift to an awareness of thoughts, allowing thoughts to arise and pass on, it is like stepping onto the bank of the river and observing the fast current but still having our feet on solid ground. From this perspective, we are empowered as we can see things more clearly and we can choose what we do next instead of being swept along.