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.