When we worry and ruminate for a long time – in other words we ‘over-think’, we may engage with mental constructs of the future and past, as well as unhelpful comparisons and evaluations.
We may generate coherent stories about perceived failures, stories that justify our actions and that describe who we are. We may turn our thoughts and emotions into problems that need to be solved before we can be happy.
We may try to directly challenge the content of our thoughts or our stories. By being caught up in the content of our thinking and attempting to avoid our feelings, we get entangled in a cycle of unnecessary suffering.
How do we solve this problem?
Through mindfulness we learn to sense ourselves as more than our body, history, thoughts and emotions, but rather as a unique, unchanging, ever-present context for all of life's experiences, just like the big sky that contains many things.
(1) Present-moment awareness – this means maintaining non-judgmental focus on current experiences, as they occur. We focus on some of the details of what our senses perceive in each moment. By doing this, we can achieve the following:
• We develop adaptive responses to current challenges
• We have greater capability for creating workable solutions
• We increasingly recognise positive and neutral patterns
• We respond more effectively to challenges
• Being mindful helps us cope with strong emotions
• We learn to observe the process of thinking, remembering, evaluating and feeling
(2) Acceptance – we can accept our history, current thoughts and emotions with self-compassion. By embracing our current experiences, we increase our willingness to confront and carry the emotions of the past and increase awareness of a 'self' that can choose and act intentionally toward valued ends, rather than in mindless reaction to fear, aversion or sadness. We learn to experience thoughts, feelings and urges without having to react to them. We make room for the full range of experiences, while accepting them for what they are.
• We regulate and dissolve pent-up emotions
• We reduce the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts
• Acceptance allows us the freedom to have a meaningful life, even in the presence of hardship
• We can increase our ability to articulate our intentions and values and take long-term action
• Compassion and acceptance enable deeper and closer friendships
• Acceptance helps us to improve our problem-solving ability
• Self-compassion helps us to disengage and distance ourselves from intrusive mental content
• Intrusive or negative thoughts are observed as passing mental events
• We reduce the need to suppress self-critical thoughts, thereby over time reducing their intensity and neutralising their harmful effects
(3) Thought-relationship – We can learn to see thoughts simply as an active, ongoing process - our minds attempting to be helpful by presenting bits of history – but we do not experience the world in the way it is structured by thought. Instead we experience the world from the present moment.
• We loosen our relationship with thought
• We look at thoughts rather than from them
• We disrupt habitual patterns of responding
• We grow non-judgmental awareness of the present moment
• We see conditioned thoughts and urges for what they are and we do not engage them
• We increase the influence that our values and intentions have over our actions.
(4) Transcendent sense of self - By being mindful, for example by observing our thinking, we can experience a sense of self that is distinct from the content of our thoughts.
• We can experience a sense of self that is larger than thoughts and stories
• We reduce attachment to a conceptual self
• We open up new avenues of living
• We become flexible in choosing what happens next
Increasing mindfulness of experiences.
• Pay attention to the present moment
• Focus on noticing aspects of experiences and environment
• Set the intention to accept all that enters our awareness
• Allow emotions, sensations and thoughts to come and go
• Dispassionately observe thoughts
• Allow thoughts to come and go without holding onto them
• Accept experiences without trying to change or evaluate them
• Focus on long-term development of mindfulness, acceptance and positive movement toward valued life goals.
• To know if we are being mindful at any point in time, we can ask ourselves: “Am I like the storm or am I like the vast and unchanging sky right now?”
We can be like the sky that watches the storm of our thoughts and emotions.
What if our lives could be about something other than trying to hold onto or get away from our past, reaching for or avoiding something in the future? What if we could let go of suffering so that we have the freedom and flexibility to choose what we want our lives to be about, even if we have no idea what that would look like yet?