In my experience one of the strongest motivations in coming to a Mindfulness class is to quiet an unruly mind. To gain some control over the persistent talk in our heads, the repetitive overthinking that escalates in anxious times and also fuels that anxiety. Short of having a lobotomy we just want a few moments of peace.
We all have our top three favourite repetitive thoughts, or our top ten and they are usually framed around some not good enough self talk: “No one will ever love me”; “If they really knew me then they for sure wouldn’t love me”; “I will always be anxious”. When we get stuck in a repetitive thought, the difficulty can be felt either in our body or mind.
- Body – pain
- Feelings – anger, sadness loneliness emptiness
- Mind - anxious repetitive thinking about anything and everything
- Attitudes – wanting something or someone, grasping, avoiding, fear.
Let’s look at our thinking-mind as an example. Normally, when thinking arises in meditation practice, we can simply name it “thinking, thinking,” and in the light of awareness it will vanish like a cloud. But sometimes it’s not so simple.
Jack Kornfield suggests numbering our repetitive thoughts, one to ten.
“Oh, that is three on the hit parade this week.”
If we do this we learn that we don’t have to play the record all the way through and we can more easily let them go. Doing so means we don’t strengthen those negative neural pathways.
A variation of this technique is to give them a humorous name or title. I have given names to many now familiar aspects of myself, such as “Mrs Not Funny”, “Miss Perfect”, “Mrs Do-my-hips-look-big-in-this”, Miss I-want-it-now”, “Miss Know-it-all”, “Miss Know-nothing”. In this way, the repeated patterns of fear, sorrow, impatience, or loneliness become more familiar, and I listen to their stories in a friendlier and openhearted way. “Hello, again Miss Impatience! What’s going on today?”
But sometimes the stories are so insistent and repetitive, it’s hard to let them go. We may feel we have been wronged, or are worried about an upcoming event, or some ongoing family dynamic. Such a story can play out many times.
Another technique to use is to expand our field of attention, which requires us to shift from that which is obvious to one of the other levels of awareness.
To do this, we can ask ourselves: How does this thought feel in my body?
You may find there is tightness in the diaphragm and the chest. We can name this, “tightness, tightness,” and stay meticulously attentive for some time. As we do, another sensation may take over, and other new images and feelings arise. Remember everything changes and EVERYTHING has a beginning middle and end. In this way, we can first begin to release the physical contractions and bodily fear that we have held.
Following this we can expand the attention further to the new feelings. What feelings arise along with this thought pattern and this tightness? At first they may be half hidden or unconscious, but if we sense carefully, the feelings will begin to show themselves. The tightness in the chest will become sadness, and the sadness may become grief. And as we finally begin to grieve, the pattern will release.
In a similar way, when we encounter a repeated physical pain or difficult mood we can expand awareness to the level of thoughts, the story or belief that comes along with it. With careful attention, we may find a subtle belief about ourselves that perpetuates the pain or mood. Perhaps a story about our unworthiness, such as “I’ll always be this way.” When we become aware of the story or belief, and see it as just that, the old pattern is released.
Repetitive thoughts and stories are almost always fuelled by an unacknowledged emotion or feeling. These feelings are part of what brings the thought back time and again.
Future planning is usually fuelled by anxiety. Remembering of the past is often fuelled by regret, or guilt, or grief. Many fantasies arise as a response to pain or emptiness. The task in meditation is to drop below the level of the repeated recorded message, to sense and feel the energy that brings it up. When we can do this, and truly come to terms with the feeling, the thought will no longer need to arise, and the pattern will naturally fade away.
Adapted from Jack Kornfield's “A Path With Heart”
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