I’ve just published a guest post at The Change Blog, “Getting Productive By ‘Getting Real,’” which is about how letting go of our need to create an image for the people we work with — whether we’re trying to look tough, likable, or something else — can actually help us get more done and find more joy in what we do. I hope you enjoy it.
Much of today’s personal development literature is about how the type of thoughts you think influence your reality. Some authors focus on how what you think about tends to appear in the world. For example, in their view, if you constantly visualize a beautiful house, you’re likely to eventually live in one, and if you’re focused on how hard it is to pay the bills, you’re likely to stay broke. Others talk about the way your thoughts affect your emotions, observing how positive and negative thoughts impact your mood.
While I agree that the kind of thoughts you think can affect your quality of life, I think it’s also important to recognize how the amount of thinking you do shapes your experience of living. There’s a growing recognition that too much thought of any kind, whether positive or negative, can bring needless suffering into your life.
We need our minds to survive and thrive in the world. Like anything else, however, thinking when it’s overused becomes self-destructive. Some psychologists estimate that on average we think one thought per second, for a total of about 60,000 per day. As I suspect many of us will attest, a large portion of those thoughts aren’t helpful at all. Most of the worrying, fantasizing, reminiscing, judging, and so on we routinely do is nothing but repetitive and distracting.
I’ll discuss some of the ways excess thinking takes away our ability to fully participate in and enjoy life, and make some suggestions about how to stem the constant stream of thought.
Thinking Takes Our Attention Out Of The Present
One often recognized hazard of excessive thinking is that it makes it hard for us to effectively respond to our present circumstances. When our attention is on what happened in the past, what might happen in the future, how others perceive us, and so on, we can’t deal with the challenges we face right now.
For instance, as many of us have probably experienced firsthand, accidents happen when we get “lost in thought.” It’s when our minds are “somewhere else” that we crash our cars, slip and fall, make errors in projects at work, and so forth. As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Miracle Of Mindfulness: An Introduction To The Practice Of Meditation, “the person who practices mindfulness should be no less awake than the driver of a car; if the practitioner isn’t awake he will be possessed by dispersion and forgetfulness, just as the drowsy driver is likely to cause a grave accident.”
Similarly, overthinking also removes our ability to enjoy what we’re doing right now. This issue arises for many of us in the work context. At work, our minds tend to be on how others will receive the projects we’re doing, how much money we’ll make this year, what we’re going to do at the end of the day, and so on.
When our minds are fixated on the possible future, anxiety about the outcome of our efforts strips us of our concentration and our capacity for joy. Those of us who lack passion for what we do often assume it’s because the projects we’re working on are boring and frustrating, but sometimes the real problem is that we aren’t paying enough attention to our work to be able to appreciate it.
As I see it, excess thinking is most destructive in our relationships with people. So often, whether we’re dealing with loved ones, colleagues or strangers, our minds are occupied with the image we’re projecting to others and our anxieties about other areas of our lives, instead of focused on listening to and being with the other person. This deprives us of our ability to enjoy the conversation, and doesn’t allow the other person to feel heard and acknowledged.
By contrast, listening with a clear mind to another person produces fulfillment and depth in our relationships. As psychologist Charlotte Kasl writes in her enjoyable book If The Buddha Dated, if we relate to others with a mind unclouded by thought, “we listen intently, becoming attuned to the other’s experience and not pasting them into our story lines,” and “we reveal ourselves in the interest of making an authentic connection, not impressing or placating someone.”
Positive Thinking Is Good, But In Moderation
What about positive thinking? How can it be harmful to visualize improvements you want to make in your circumstances? How can it be bad to remember enjoyable times in your life? As I mentioned earlier, too much thinking of any kind, no matter how positive, takes away your ability to enjoy and respond to the present moment. But another problem with excess positive thinking–as with all thinking–is that it makes the mind louder.
I’ve noticed, both in self-observation and working with clients, that each thought we think seems to increase the intensity and intrusiveness of the thoughts that follow. The more we feed the mind with our thinking, the more it interferes with our ability to live life right now. It’s as if the mind is a ravenous animal like a pig, and each time we think we feed the pig and make it bigger. As the pig grows, the amount of care and feeding it needs increases, and it puts more demands on our attention. When we quiet our minds, we put the pig on a diet and it takes up less space in our awareness.
This aspect of the mind becomes particularly pronounced when our thoughts abruptly shift from empowering to discouraging. For a little while, we take a pleasant trip through reminiscing about the “good times,” fantasizing about amazing things we’ll accomplish, and so on. Our mental journey keeps occupying more and more of our attention until we’re almost completely immersed in a fantasy world, but that’s okay for the moment because it’s making us happy.
Suddenly, one of our thoughts hits a sour note. We remember a difficult interaction with someone, how we aren’t getting what we want in life, how many obligations we have, or something else. With the mind at peak volume, the blast of negative thinking plunges us into despair. As Eckhart Tolle puts it in A New Earth, “positive emotions generated by the ego already contain within themselves their opposite into which they can quickly turn.” For instance, “what the ego calls love is addictiveness and possessive clinging that can turn into hate within a second.”
One important lesson to take away from the mind’s tendency to get “louder” as we feed it is that positive thoughts aren’t always the best way to escape the trap of destructive thinking. The conventional wisdom has it that, if we have a disempowering thought like “I’m weak,” we should immediately counter it with something affirming like “I’m strong” to keep ourselves out of a downward emotional spiral. Sometimes, however, all positive thinking does is turn up the mind’s “volume,” so that our mental negativity hits us harder when it eventually returns.
Next time you find yourself mired in negative thinking, I invite you to simply allow the thoughts to be, rather than coming up with more thoughts to “defend yourself” and thus feeding the mind. Gradually, your thoughts will likely fade away, leaving you again at peace. As meditation teacher Bill Scheffel puts it in Loving-Kindness Meditation, “mindfulness means calm abiding. Calm abiding is a way of letting thoughts subside. It is not an attempt to stop thought—just relax our involvement in the constant stream of thinking most of us do.”
The Key To A Mental Diet Plan
There are many strategies out there to help us free ourselves from excessive thinking—whether they’re meditation techniques, physical exercises, special kinds of music or something else—and there isn’t space to address them all here. However, I think the key point to remember is that most of these techniques seem to emphasize keeping your attention on your sensory experience. In other words, staying in touch with what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling and so on in this moment is an effective way to curb unnecessary mind activity.
The technique I’ve found most useful in holding my attention on my sensory experience is simply to focus on the pressure of my feet against the ground. If you haven’t tried this before, take a second right now to notice what your feet feel like on the floor.
You may be surprised by the richness and breadth of the sensations you experience. These might include tingling, warmth, throbbing, prickling, and a lot of other feelings that words don’t exist to describe. What’s more, you may notice as you pay attention to the feelings in your feet that they change over time, arising and subsiding like ripples on the surface of a lake.
Bringing your awareness fully into the body, and the amazing variety of sensations you can feel in it, is often enough to absorb much of your attention and direct it away from the mind. As Drs. Aggie Casey and Herbert Benson put it in Mind Your Heart: A Mind/Body Approach To Stress Management, Exercise And Nutrition For Heart Health, “your mind quiets and negative thoughts fade as you focus on your body,” and “if you quiet the body, you can calm the mind.”
After a while, a thought may arise. When this happens, either allow the thought to occur and pass away, leaving you again focused on your sensory experience, or visualize the thought flowing out of your body into the ground. For the latter exercise, look at the thought as if it’s an electric charge, and you are “grounding out” the charge by directing it through your body into the floor. You’ll likely find that the thought subsides into the emptiness from which it came.
It’s also helpful to recognize how much we can accomplish in our lives without using our minds. In fact, there are many things it’s impossible to do effectively while our minds are active. When we’re doing an intensely physical activity like playing basketball or rock climbing, allowing thoughts about the past or future to cloud our awareness strips away our skill and enjoyment.
In these and other activities, we have to essentially turn off our minds and let our bodies operate on instinct. We need to enter what psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi famously called a state of “flow,” where our attention is entirely on what we’re doing and “out of our heads,” to perform well and have fun.
If you haven’t experimented with reducing the amount of thinking you regularly do, I invite you to try it, if only for a few minutes or hours at a time. I think you’ll be surprised by the peace and focus this practice can bring you.
A while back, I wrote an article on the oft-revisited issue of how to deal with a negative “self-image.” I suggested we’re actually at our most joyful and empowered in moments when we’re not conscious of any self-image, or mental picture of ourselves, at all. In my experience, self-images, whether negative or positive, are a source of frustration and distraction. I’ll expand on this issue here by discussing ways to transcend our self-images, and allow our full awareness to enrich what we’re doing in each moment.
When your attention is on your self-image, it’s as if, while you’re doing whatever activity you’re doing, someone is videotaping you and you’re watching the video on a screen. In other words, it’s like you’re watching yourself doing what you’re doing in real time, as you’re doing it. If you’re having a conversation with someone, and your attention is fixated on your self-image, it’s as if you’re simultaneously having the conversation and observing it from a third-person view. Not surprisingly, this diverts your attention from what you’re doing and makes you less effective at accomplishing your goals.
For example, a while back, when I was rock climbing with some more skilled climbers, I’d occasionally worry about falling on relatively easy courses in front of my friends. In other words, I was paying attention to the image I was projecting to my fellow climbers while I was trying to climb the rock. Of course, watching this mental movie distracted me, and had me fall in exactly the embarrassing ways I wanted to avoid.
Sometimes, we get so accustomed to holding our attention on our self-images—to trying to get a sense of how we look from the outside as we go about our lives—that we forget we’re doing it. Recently, a friend told me a story that nicely illustrated this point. She’s been taking a yoga class for a while, and for a long time she was frustrated with her lack of progress at mastering the poses she’s learning. This changed when, one day, her yoga instructor half-jokingly reminded the students to pay attention only to their own movements, and not to how they looked to others.
When her teacher said this, my friend suddenly realized how self-conscious she’d been about the way her yoga poses appeared to others in the class. She’d become so accustomed to worrying about how others saw her that she’d started doing it constantly and unconsciously. Once she gained this awareness, my friend started practicing holding her full attention on nothing but her movements. Ever since, she’s been surprised at how quickly she’s been learning.
My friend’s experience calls to mind psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s theory in his well-known book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. People enter a state of flow, or peak performance and fulfillment, when their attention becomes so focused on what they are doing that they temporarily forget they’re the ones doing it. They lose all concern, in other words, for others’ opinions of them and what they can get for themselves by doing the activity. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, in a flow state,
One of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place: people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.
Similarly, because my friend shifted her focus away from how her yoga poses looked to others, and brought it entirely to her body’s movements, she greatly improved her performance.
How do you become aware of those moments where your fixation on your self-image is harming your joy and fulfillment in life? One meditation technique has helped me develop this awareness, and it’s pretty simple. I sit in silence with my eyes closed, and carefully observe the thoughts that arise. At certain moments, my thoughts become absorbed in my relationships with other people, and I find myself wondering what another person thinks or feels about me. In other words, I wonder what image I’ve projected to the other person in my interactions with them, and thus focus my attention on my “self-image.”
I’ve noticed that, when I place my attention on my self-image, I feel a mild, ugly sensation in my upper back, just under the shoulder blades. It’s not just distracting for me to focus on how I’m appearing to others—it’s actually unpleasant, and has a specific uncomfortable feeling associated with it. When I’m going through my daily routine, I’ve got too much on my mind to notice those moments where I slip into “image-consciousness.” But when I’m sitting alone in silence, those moments stand out very clearly.
As I practiced, during meditation, noticing when my concerns about my self-image came up, I started becoming able to observe when my attention would fixate on that issue during my daily life. I began noticing that the same unpleasant sensation I’d felt in my back while meditating arose in specific situations out in the “real world.”
When I went to the gym, for instance, I started noticing that ugly feeling creeping into my back—probably because, like my friend the yogini, I was unconsciously fretting over how my body looked to others. The good news was that, as with my friend, my image-consciousness quickly began to dissolve when I became fully aware of it. By becoming conscious of the situations where I’d start fixating on my self-image, I’ve brought much peace and focus to my life.
To do this exercise, simply find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed and close your eyes. As you sit there, your thoughts may drift to what the people in your life think of you, and how your actions and inactions may have affected their opinions. When this happens, notice any sensations you experience in your body. Perhaps you will feel tingling, tightness, pain or something else. These sensations, you’ll find, are signals that your mind is drifting into self-consciousness—that you are putting your attention on your self-image.
As you reenter your daily life, pay attention to how your body feels in the various situations you find yourself in. On occasion, you’ll likely notice the same sensations you felt during meditation coming up. When you feel one of these sensations, gently remind yourself that you are becoming absorbed in your self-image, your appearance to others. This awareness is often enough to loosen your self-image’s grip on your attention, and return you to a state of composure and concentration. As meditation teacher Rohit Mehta says in The Secret of Self-Transformation, “to see the self-image for oneself in the mirror of life is to see its destruction.”