Mindfulness and Your Thoughts

Here is a powerful idea:

Your memories and damaging thoughts are like propaganda.  They are not real.  They are not you.

To quote Rhett and Link from Good Mythical Morning, let’s talk about that.

Why is it so hard to get a hold of our own minds? Why are we run over by our emotions, moods, and thoughts? Why are cognitive distortions such a problem? This is why:

  • when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.
  •  the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness—of working out why you’re unhappy and what you can do about it—often makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand—the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.

“When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it’s natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The “inner critic,” which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it’s your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Let’s stop here.  In the process of trying to solve our emotional distress, thoughts emerge.  Recall what I’ve been posting about core beliefs.  This is when those core beliefs come into play.  Let’s look at an example.

When I was living in France, I lived directly next to another American named Liz.  She was the most even-tempered person I think I’ve ever met.  We became fast friends and traveled everywhere together.  She was never in a bad mood.  She always seemed happy.  I have rarely met anyone like her.  One day, however, she returned with a test in hand and tears on her face.  She had failed an exam, and the teacher in characteristic French fashion had shamed her with one eloquent sentence on the test: “Il faut essayer un peu,” meaning “You have to at least try a little bit.”  Ouch! I waited for her to explode or lie in bed for days questioning her existence or capabilities.  She had studied.  I took the same test.  We studied together.  Nope.  It never happened.  Why?

She didn’t have any negative identity-based core beliefs.  She had a good childhood and adolescence.  She didn’t have abuse in her background.  She didn’t really tie performance to identity.  She hadn’t experienced trauma.  She was very fortunate.  She felt the sting of the shame and the immediate failure, and then, lo, she moved on.  She self-regulated.

The idea that we can experience an emotion and not fix it but simply allow it to pass might be a new idea.  You can wake up in the morning with mild anxiety and simply allow it to exist without asking repeatedly, “Why am I anxious? When did I feel this way before? What is this about?” but instead begin to recognize that you are not your anxious feelings might feel like a non-option.  Aren’t we supposed to chase down every negative emotion and solve them? Well, as studies are beginning to reveal, we aren’t actually solving anything:

“We get drawn into this emotional quicksand because our state of mind is intimately connected with memory. The mind is constantly trawling through memories to find those that echo our current emotional state. For example, if you feel threatened, the mind instantly digs up memories of when you felt endangered in the past, so that you can spot similarities and find a way of escaping. It happens in an instant, before you’re even aware of it. It’s a basic survival skill honed by millions of years of evolution. It’s incredibly powerful and almost impossible to stop.

The same is true with unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It is normal to feel a little unhappy from time to time, but sometimes a few sad thoughts can end up triggering a cascade of unhappy memories, negative emotions and harsh judgments. Before long, hours or even days can be colored by negative self-critical thoughts such as, What’s wrong with me? My life is a mess. What will happen when they discover how useless I really am?

Such self-attacking thoughts are incredibly powerful, and once they gather momentum they are almost impossible to stop.  One thought or feeling triggers the next, and then the next … Soon, the original thought—no matter how fleeting—has gathered up a raft of similar sadnesses, anxieties and fears and you’ve become enmeshed in your own sorrow.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

I relate to this on so many levels.  I don’t generally attack myself, but, in a millisecond, my mind provides me with ways of escaping when similarities in the present line up with similarities to the past.  My mind will generate thoughts like, “Do you remember the last time you felt like this? Your ex caused you to feel like this.  Your mother did this.  Your father did this…”  Ad infinitem.  I will find a pattern and draw conclusions so quickly.  I won’t even know that I’ve done it.  Suddenly, I’m in tears or panicking or wondering if I’m safe.  I will begin to wonder if anyone in my life is trustworthy.  All because one thought was generated in my mind and I had to figure it out!

What can we do about it?

“You can’t stop the triggering of unhappy memories, self-critical thoughts and judgmental ways of thinking—but you can stop what happens next. You can stop the spiral from feeding off itself and triggering the next cycle of negative thoughts. You can stop the cascade of destructive emotions that can end up making you unhappy, anxious, stressed, irritable or exhausted.

Mindfulness meditation teaches you to recognize memories and damaging thoughts as they arise. It reminds you that they are memories. They are like propaganda, they are not real. They are not you. You can learn to observe negative thoughts as they arise, let them stay a while and then simply watch them evaporate before your eyes. And when this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Ah yes, we are back at mindfulness again.  It seems that there is so much more to it than coloring books.

For Getting Your Mindfulness On:

Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World

4 Comments on “Mindfulness and Your Thoughts

  1. Over the last few months, I’ve read several books and many more articles on mindfulness. I’ve dutifully engaged in daily mindful meditation for the last four weeks. So far, no benefits to speak of -just a growing sense of uneasiness and feeling adrift, disconnected from my [real] life-if that makes any sense to you. I’ve tried mindfulness before. Last year, I did an online course. I found the exchange of ideas with others interesting but the actual mindfulness, not so much. I returned to it this time encouraged by my therapist to try it out as part of the compassionate mindfulness approach we’ve been working on. So here I am, stuck again. Frankly bored to tears by being grounded in the monotony of my daily life and with this growing sense of uneasiness.
    I know part of this discomfort and resistance is because of the long list of the benefits of mindfulness that are trumpeted in every book I’ve read. All they do for me is set off the ‘purveyors of snake oil’ klaxon. What makes me really uneasy is the repeated message that ‘you are not your thoughts’ -it’s way too near the gaslighting I’ve experienced in the past. I agree with the point you make about core beliefs etc and the problems with trying to problem solve your way out of things. But, I still come back to thinking that I am my thoughts thank you very much! Or more precisely, the combination of my thoughts, feelings and experiences. That combination is what is unique-it’s what makes me, me.
    Sorry I’ve rambled here-mostly because I’ve a tendency to clear my head by writing. My question is-.has anyone else experienced this unease/discomfort? Any suggestions for moving past this?

    • Well, I think the statement that stands out to me is “You are not your thoughts.” The part of the mindfulness protocol that I’ve followed and really enjoyed is the “You are not your feelings”. I can only speak for myself on this. The neuroscience behind mindfulness is sound. So, it’s not snake oil. So, I think, for myself, I refer to cognitive distortions quite often. There are thoughts that I have which are quite valid and contribute to building a sound identity and others which tear it down. A validating thought vs. an invalidating thought.

      And there are myriad kinds of thoughts. “2+2=4” That is a thought. We think in math from time to time. But, am I…math? No. And, if I were to think mathematically in an effort to solve the quadratic equation and fail, would I suddenly be a failure? These are the differentiations that are being made in the mindfulness protocol. Do I feel sad, or AM I sad? Is my identity as a human determined by the ever-changing cascade of emotions that I feel? That would make me sad, happy, despairing, euphoric, lustful, curious, etc, and at the mercy of the firing of my neurotransmitters and hormones 100% of the time. Do I want that?

      So, what is my identity about then? What or who determines that? And what is gaslighting then? Gaslighting is perceptual manipulation in its most simplistic terms, and we can just as easily gaslight ourselves by allowing the ups and downs of serotonin and dopamine to define our identity for us. Am I actualized and identified solely by my feelings and thoughts? Do they run my life and determine my course of actions? Do my cognitive distortions determine then how I feel and what I think? There is a huge difference between a distorted thought and a healthy thought–a validating thought and an invalidating. How do we tell the difference? Mindfulness is a helpful tool in these things which must be discerned. Learning to step back and become an observer of the activities of our mind actually makes us less vulnerable to gaslighting because we become far more aware of what we are feeling and thinking. We are less reactionary and overwhelmed by distortions, manipulations, and our own limbic system which makes us far more able to rationally and skillfully engage with anyone who would seek to gaslight us.

      So, perhaps the script might be, “You are not your cognitive distortions. Your identity is not determined by your invalidating thoughts or your out of control emotions. You don’t have to fix them. Just observe them and allow them to pass.”

      That’s very hard for me. I want to fix everything. All the time.

  2. Ah, but that’s my point. If these mindfulness books had said, ‘ you aren’t your core beliefs and cognitive distortions’ I would have had no issue with that. I agree that such it’s desirable to identify and reframe problematic thoughts and beliefs But the tack they take is way more general than that -and that’s what I find troublesome. They don’t differentiate. And it may be that they take it as a given that they are referring to unhelpful thoughts etc, and thus, don’t feel the need to say as much. I prefer more precision than that. But if we are not our thoughts, then you can’t pick and choose. You can’t say, the positive thoughts are ‘the real me’, but the negative ones aren’t. They are all you-the yin and yang. Otherwise it all goes a bit Pollyanna.
    The books I’ve read, cite as their evidence, the fact that thoughts are ephemeral is proof that we aren’t our thoughts. That only works if you assume that who we are, our identity, is fixed and static. But we aren’t like that at all. For me, who we are is a very slippery, nebulous concept because it is so dynamic. It makes life difficult, but it’s also the glory of it. That’s why the best way I can summarise my quintessence is to view it as the sum of my thoughts, feelings and experiences in this world. It doesn’t mean because I feel sad, I am sadness personified. It doesn’t define me. It isn’t all that I am – though it is a too frequent visitor! So, I do have to recognise it is part of me and try to balance that out. Some of what you say seems to equate thoughts and feelings with being out of control and at their mercy. And that can be the case, if, for instance you’ve been triggered,. But we are also capable of rational thoughts too and they are just as much us and part of our identity as any emotions-and just as much the result of firing neurotransmitters!
    Now, if you find that using mindfulness techniques to step back so that you can see the wood for the trees, I can see the value in that. I’m still not sure about how you conceive what your identity actually is and what is is determined by, rather than what it’s not. I can’t comment about the integrity of the neuroscience as I don’t know enough about that aspect of it. I can only say, I haven’t experienced the advertised benefits. And I’m still stuck.

    • This is a very difficult conversation to have in a comment section. I think that I would say that, at this point, mindfulness is a tool that allows the rational and emotional to come together in order to create wisdom while creating distance. For me, that is the point. My emotions are informative. They are not something I look to which defines my identity. I require distance from my thoughts and feelings in order to bring the rational and emotional together. The neuroscience is worth looking at.

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