Through my work as a therapist and personal experience as a meditator, I can honestly say living life through the filter of thinking alone and cultivating constant opinions and ideas leads to stress in one form or another. It is easy to get fascinated with thinking and lose track of reality. It’s the storyline that is created. And the ability to release the storyline becomes very difficult if not impossible at times.
As an example, imagine a very busy person. She has about fifteen things on her to-do list which includes many errands and some deadlines that all must be completed before her children come home from school later in the afternoon. The situation can be extremely overwhelming. She most likely is caught up in her storyline throughout the day. Her thoughts are telling her “how am I going to do this … I have so much to do … why didn’t I finish some of these errands over the weekend … what if I don’t get this done, my boss will be very frustrated with me … Oh no, I forgot to contact my sister to see how her medical procedure went … I wish the weather would warm up a little … I need to go to the gym”. This is storyline. And storyline creates stress.
The goal is to notice thoughts arising and passing. When we begin thinking about the thoughts we maintain awareness that we are thinking but continue to stay fully present and just do the next thing. Obviously, this is not easy. Thinking turns into our own personal commentary about the thoughts we are thinking, much like the sports announcer chattering about the golf pro teeing up for his next swing. This commentary turns into an interesting storyline that we have difficulty letting go of. This has the potential to morph into obsessions, rumination, endless mental chatter and constant second-guessing. We hold our imaginary magnifying glass to the storyline and become focused on it. The trick is to put down the magnifying glass.
Why is dropping the storyline difficult? It’s familiar and provides a sense of security. It is common for people to fear the unknown. Thoughts are from the past so they are known. That which is known provides a sense of hope, a feeling that things can get better. How often do you notice people who are very stressed have a wish that things return to how they were – “if only we can live the way we did in the past, everything would be alright.” The truth is there were just as many problems back then as there are now, yet people still feel secure with the idea of returning to that which is known.
In my work with people who suffer from trauma, I have observed a common tendency for the person to return to dangerous situations that are similar to the experience that produced the trauma, because it is familiar. However, trauma survivors are not the only ones who follow this pattern. Our past secures our existence. It reinforces our beliefs and the feeling that we are justified and right about what we do. If we exclusively listened to our mind all of the time we would live completely in the past. And that is not healthy or realistic.
When we become fascinated by our thoughts and the storyline we create, a conflict between what we think and what we experience in reality occurs. This conflict leads to comparing, judging and feeling dissatisfied. For example, you go to a new restaurant and order the chicken soup. When you taste the soup you will automatically compare it to the other chicken soup experiences you have had. You will then decide that the soup is “pretty good, but it was better at that restaurant I went to in Cleveland.” This is a benign example, but the truth is we do this with significant circumstances in life all the time. How often do you decide in your mind how vacation is going to go before you even arrive? Or you plan a special date night with your spouse and get disappointed that it didn’t unfold the way you hoped. If you stayed in the present without expectations the experience would most likely be perfect.
I struggled with this tendency for years. I am a planner and I always enjoy thinking about future projects, days off, long term goals and my bucket list. It is somewhat of an escape from the now, but it also gives me direction for where I’d like to be. I come from a family that really got into birthdays. My mother always says that a person’s birthday is the most important day of the year because they were born that day. Growing up this way, as an adult I had disappointing birthdays for years due to my own mind. I decided how I wanted it to be and created a storyline of expectation. I didn’t realize other people were not raised with such celebration of birth. For two decades I did this and never felt completely satisfied. After I learned meditation and gained more wisdom about the mind, I realized what I was doing and no longer experience bad birthdays. The conflict between thoughts and reality was resolved.
The most dangerous example of this fascination with our past is related to addictions. The conflict between the past – including thought, feeling and behavior – and the present becomes such a struggle it can lead to dire consequences and an inability to function. The mind is remembering the addictive behavior and defaults back to it when the experience of the present is too stressful, too difficult, or too unpredictable. The tendency is to return to safe-zone and indulge in the familiar. That is why the best strategy for any addiction is learning how to stay fully present and cultivate awareness.
What can you do if it’s difficult to put down the magnifying glass that keeps you focused on your storyline and thinking processes? Add don’t subtract. Do not try and stop these thoughts, rumination or preoccupations. That will never work. We cannot stop the mind from having thoughts, especially habitual thoughts! Add awareness of your experience of the present moment – the feeling of your breathing, the sensations of your physical body, the sounds in your environment, the sensory input from other senses besides the mind. If you had a half glass of grape juice with an overly intense taste that you could not drink or dump out, what could you do? Add water to the glass. The grape juice would not be gone but it would be diluted, appear lighter in color and taste less intense. Now it’s easier to drink. Do the same with your mind.
In summary, be aware of paying too much attention to your thinking mind. When thinking turns into commentary and storyline it will interfere with your experience of the present moment. Stop focusing so much on your thoughts. It will drain your energy and make you less effective. Put down the magnifying glass. Pay attention to everything in the here and now and just do the next thing. Before you know it, you will be living your life with more happiness and calmness, but also increased efficiency. Interacting with your environment is more important than interacting with thoughts.