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.
I have to admit, I cringe a little when I see personal development products offering us the ability to “make” others do what we want. Whether it’s books about “making her attracted to you” or “getting him to commit,” CDs on “making your audience applaud” or seminars on “getting customers to close the deal,” there’s a ton of products with techniques for influencing others’ feelings and behavior.
I won’t get into whether these products are ineffective or manipulative. My main concern is that I don’t think they can deliver the happiness they promise.
Does Control Equal Happiness?
The assumption these products make is that, if you really did “get” another person to do what you wanted—go on a date with you, buy your air conditioning equipment, or something else—you’d find happiness or peace of mind. But is this really true?
Let’s look at something that tends to happen in intimate relationships. We often hear about one person leaving the relationship because their partner proved to be “too nice” or “too eager to please.” It seems that, as human beings, when our partner sacrifices their wants and needs to make us happy, we get bored.
In other words, when one person in the relationship becomes able to “make” their partner do what they want, they begin to lose interest. Being with someone who does whatever we want, as many of us know from experience, is not a path to happiness.
And how about marketing? Suppose you knew a magic word you could say to a customer that was guaranteed to “make” them buy your product. You could sell as many products and make as much money as you wanted. Would you be happy?
I suspect the answer is no. Another trait of human beings seems to be that we aren’t fulfilled in our work unless it challenges us in some way. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience has some great explanations and research on this.) If you knew you could never fail to close a deal, the challenge, and thus the fun, involved in making sales would disappear.
We Want Realness, Not “Results”
I think we usually prefer to interact with people who have their own personalities, feelings, wants and needs. That’s what makes relating between human beings interesting—the excitement (and, sometimes, the challenge) of finding out about another person. As I talked about in my “joy of listening” series, understanding someone else’s world can be a thrilling journey of discovery.
If everybody started thinking and feeling the way we wanted, we wouldn’t be able to experience that joy. Not that we’d prefer that everyone disagree with us or fight us all the time, but if they do agree with us, I think most of us would like it to come from what they genuinely desire, instead of a need to please or obey.
Because of the focus on “results” in our culture, we often lose sight of this. We tend to assume, consciously or not, that we’d find contentment if everyone else would just do what we want—if they’d start paying us the money or having the relationships with us that we desire.
When we realize this won’t bring us happiness, and we focus on enjoying the process of relating with people rather than what they do or don’t do for us, being with others takes on a joy and lightness we may not have experienced before.
One of the most liberating realizations I’ve had in my life is that I’m not responsible for my ideas. In other words, I can do very little to make myself become creative, except for keeping my mind open to receiving insights, and writing them down as they come up. In this post, I’ll talk about how I came to this perspective, and how it can give us more peace and productivity in our work.
This perspective dawned on me when I noticed my best ideas came to me while I was meditating. After each meditation session—even short, ten-minute ones—I’d find myself frantically scurrying to the keyboard to type up the inspiration that struck. This became so effective for me that I started a practice I call “staccato meditation,” where I meditate for five minutes for each half-hour of work. Writing proceeds so fluidly, I’ve found, when I work that way.
When this became clear, I noticed my experience was at odds with the conventional wisdom on creativity. Inspiration will arise, the common belief goes, if you keep your nose to the grindstone—the more time you spend in front of the computer, or wherever you do your work, the more likely you are to have a breakthrough idea. But that wasn’t how it seemed to work for me—instead, my imagination operated best when I stopped writing, sat quietly and just breathed.
Another thing I started to notice was that creativity arises suddenly and without warning. It’s not as if inspiration strikes at predictable times of day, or your left eyelid starts twitching madly to signal incoming ideas—you can never quite tell when they’re going to pop up. In short, creativity didn’t seem like something I could predict or control—at most, it was something I could stay open to through meditation, as if I were planting a lightning rod and waiting for a bolt to strike it.
The Surprising Implications
When I had these realizations, I got to thinking. If what I experienced is true for everyone—if we aren’t actually responsible for our ideas—why do we have a habit in our culture of putting famous creative people on a pedestal?
If I’m right about how creativity works, that means the well-known artists, writers, musicians and so on in our society didn’t really come up with the ideas that brought them fame—at best, they were just really good at transcribing and organizing the inspiration that struck them. Some artists recognize this themselves—look, for example, at J.K. Rowling’s statement that Harry Potter “just strolled into my head fully formed.” Our habit of treating these people like gods seems a bit silly from this perspective.
I also thought of how invested my ego can get in my creative projects. For example, when I’m working on a book or article, I sometimes find myself imagining that I’m telling others “yes, that’s right, that’s my work,” and feeling special. The downside is that, when my ego gets wrapped up in a project, I waste time obsessing over whether my ideas will look clever enough to my audience. I’ll bet that, if you’re a writer, you can relate.
If it’s true that I’m not responsible for my ideas, I recognized, I don’t have to endure the suffering that comes with seeking ego gratification through my work. It makes no sense for me to invest my ego in my projects, because the ideas at the core of my writing aren’t even “mine.” In other words, if I’m not responsible for the ideas I put on the page, it’s misguided for me to take credit for them, or beat myself up if they don’t seem good enough.
A “Productivity Anti-Hack” If I Ever Saw One
The greatest gift that came with this realization was a new sense of freedom in my work. When my ego became invested in a project, my work proceeded slowly and painfully. After all, in that frame of mind, my self-worth was, in a sense, riding on how my work would be received—of course I second-guessed myself and suffered from “analysis paralysis.”
But when I acknowledged I wasn’t responsible for the ideas in my writing—all I was really doing was transcribing them and showing them to the world—I understood that my value as a human being had no relationship to what I wrote. How could it, if the ideas weren’t even mine? As it no longer seemed like my writing could “make or break me” as a person, there was no need to endlessly second-guess my work. Words flowed most easily and naturally when I recognized my lack of responsibility for my creativity.
The increase in my productivity when I detached my ego from my creative work also seemed to defy the conventional wisdom. In our culture, we tend to assume the way to motivate yourself to do your best work is to imagine everybody praising you as wonderful and special for doing a good job. In other words, you should motivate yourself by visualizing the money, fame, relationships and so on you’ll get if your work “makes it big.” Accepting that my creativity had very little to do with “me” went against this approach. But it helped me get more done, and do higher-quality work.
Interestingly, I found, this is consistent with psychological research on creativity and productivity. For instance, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience is about how people become able to enter a state of “flow,” or peak effectiveness, in their work and play.
In a “flow” state, Csikszentmihalyi writes, our attention is so focused on the task in front of us that we forget about ourselves and our concerns. We can’t enter this state if our attention is focused on how others will see, or what we’re going to get out of, our work—an “obstacle to experiencing flow is excessive self-consciousness,” and flow is inaccessible to a “person who is constantly worried about how others will perceive her.”
Thus it makes sense that, when we let go of the notion that the ideas in our writing are “ours,” our self-consciousness disappears and the flow state becomes available.
Seeing It For Yourself
If you aren’t sure what I’m saying resonates with you, I invite you to try a simple exercise to see for yourself whether it’s true. To begin, see if you can put aside any of your preconceived notions about how creativity works—how to stimulate it, what parts of the brain are responsible for it, and so on. Next, sit alone in a quiet place, close your eyes, and begin to breathe slowly and deeply. Simply allow whatever enters your mind to be there—don’t strive to find good ideas or make any other kind of effort. Continue for five to ten minutes, and then open your eyes.
I suspect that, during your brief meditation, some ideas arose in your mind. Perhaps they weren’t great or groundbreaking ideas—maybe the only things that came up were items to add to your shopping list. That doesn’t matter for the purposes of this exercise—the important point is that ideas came into being.
Now, notice that, between these ideas, there were periods of emptiness—moments when your mind was free of thought. These may be brief, but you can notice them if you pay close attention. Observe that you had no control over how long these gaps between ideas lasted—you couldn’t do anything to make the next idea arise more quickly. Notice that you also had no control over the content of the ideas that came up. You couldn’t choose whether your next idea would be about your shopping list, or the next classic of Western literature.
In short, notice how minor your role in the creative process actually was. All you did was pay attention and listen for ideas, as if you were listening to the radio. You didn’t decide on the content or timing of the ideas—instead, it was almost as if the ideas themselves made those decisions. In ordinary life, we don’t see that creativity works this way, as our minds are distracted by so much stimulation. Meditation allows us to see how little responsibility we really have for the ideas we usually call “our own.”
If you repeat this meditation over time, I think you’ll also start to notice another interesting thing: your ideas like to be listened to. Normally, when we’re working on a project and we’re feeling blocked, we tend to get angry at ourselves, demanding that our minds give us something useful and original. But when you become willing to simply listen to your ideas, without demanding or expecting anything, I think you’ll find that your imagination is at its liveliest. Your creativity flows most naturally and freely when you let go of it and allow it to do its work.
If I’m Not Responsible, Who Is?
I realize I haven’t addressed a question that might be on some people’s minds, which is: if the creative element of my work doesn’t come from me, where does it come from? To be honest, the reason I haven’t answered that question is that I don’t know. All I know is that, wherever it comes from, it doesn’t come from the bundle of thoughts, feelings and needs I usually call “me.”
If I were to give the source of our creativity a name, I’d call it “the universe,” “reality,” “truth,” or something else implying that it’s a force that’s all around us and accessible to all of us. I’m curious to hear how you think about it.
We often hear about the importance of dreaming big, getting clear about our goals, and making lists of what we want to get done. I think these are wonderful ideas, and I use them all myself. I also think we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that achieving any goal we set for ourselves will bring us permanent happiness, and forever free us of anger, anxiety or despair.
One of our biggest sources of disappointment is the way we tend to assume that, if we reach a certain place in our lives, we’ll live happily ever after. It’s as if our lives are a kind of race, and once we finish the race we can spend the rest of our lives celebrating our victory, free of conflict and stress. The expression “finish rich,” which is used in a lot of financial self-help literature, is a good example of this mindset—the implication being that suffering right now is okay as long as we retire wealthy.
Different events represent this mythical “finish line” to different people. To some, getting married or meeting the ideal partner will end their search for lifelong fulfillment. To others, it’s earning enough money to spend the rest of one’s days in a beachfront house. To still others, it’s getting a graduate degree that allows them to enter a lucrative profession like law or medicine.
Why This Mindset Has Us Suffer
Unfortunately, as many of us have learned firsthand, there simply is no finish line. No event in our lives seems capable of making us permanently happy. No matter how much money we earn, how wonderful our relationship seems, and so on, anxiety and despair creep back into our awareness sooner or later. The dream job starts to feel boring and repetitive, the dream relationship goes stale, we start taking that expensive house or car for granted, and so on.
When a key event happens in our lives but leaves us disappointed, we tend to assume we just need to cross another, different “finish line” to be happy. The wealthy people I know whose homes are in a constant state of disrepair due to landscaping and remodeling come to mind. When one extra wing on their houses doesn’t satisfy them, they assume they just need another, and when that doesn’t work they decide they need a kidney-shaped pool instead of an oval one. And then they get annoyed that their yards are constantly full of trucks and bulldozers.
This mentality represents the perspective most of us have on our lives, if on a less luxurious scale. But if we really want lasting satisfaction, I think, we have to start considering other possibilities.
I don’t know of a way to prevent ourselves from ever feeling scared, angry, or sad. But I do think we can experience more peace and focus in our lives with a simple shift in perspective. When we’re able to let go of the sense that some future event can make us satisfied or whole―that enough money, fame, sex or whatever we crave can complete us―suddenly happiness becomes more accessible.
We could also see this new perspective as a recognition that our sense that we’re empty or incomplete is an illusion. Because we are already whole, we don’t need some future person, thing or event to complete us or make us happy. Simply releasing the false belief that we aren’t whole, rather than doing or acquiring anything in the world, can help us achieve the peace we’re seeking. As Dr. Joan Borysenko writes in Minding The Body, Mending The Mind, “the message that underlies healing is simple yet radical: We are already whole . . . . Underneath our fears and worries, unaffected by the many layers of our conditioning and actions, is a peaceful core.”
Interestingly enough, when we release the idea that there’s a void in us that needs to be filled, we become more able to attract what we want into our lives. As I discuss in my book, for example, when we rely on our careers to give us a sense of wholeness, we’re constantly anxious about something going wrong at work. This mentality has us do things like endlessly pore over documents we create, even though rationally we know they’re okay, and wake up at 3:00 in the morning terrified that the bonus won’t be big enough this year. But when we release this anxiety, we can give each project no more than the amount of time it’s actually due, and become more productive and well-rested.
Bringing Our Attention Into The Present
How do we stop relying on the future to bring us happiness, and gain more appreciation for where we are now? There are many ways to do this, but I’d generally recommend cultivating awareness of what’s going on within and around us in each moment. This means becoming more aware, both of what we’re experiencing on the inside—the emotions and sensations we’re feeling in our bodies—and what’s happening in our surroundings—the sounds we may hear outside the window, how our keyboards feel when we touch them, or how warm or cool the temperature in the room is.
One particularly effective method for developing this kind of awareness is to bring our attention to our breathing. Our awareness of our breathing often falls away when we become absorbed in fretting over or yearning for the future. Simply noticing how each breath feels can help us return our attention to this moment and reconnect with our ability to enjoy living. As Dr. Richard Moss writes in The Mandala Of Being, “to return to our breathing is to bring our attention back to the present.”
When our minds are on the future, and the events that will supposedly bring us satisfaction, we lose awareness of what we’re experiencing now. And when we aren’t experiencing what’s going on around us, we can’t appreciate or enjoy it. Bringing our attention to this moment, by focusing on what we’re feeling and perceiving, helps restore our access to our passion for what we do. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, “only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.”
It’s sometimes said this is one reason why “extreme sports” like rock climbing and skydiving are so exciting. Climbing a mountain, for instance, forces you to hold your attention on what’s going on around you in the present. If you start daydreaming about what the top of the mountain will look like, you may make a dangerous mistake. And because your awareness must stay in this moment while you’re climbing, you have access to your natural joy and aliveness in a way you may not in daily life.
When we’re able to keep our attention focused in the present, and let go of our tendency to look to the future to satisfy us, life takes on an exciting and fulfilling quality we may not have experienced before. Even our normal routines, and mundane activities like cleaning and organizing our offices, can become interesting and pleasurable. Dropping the idea of a “finish line,” and seeing each step in the “race” we run in life as meaningful, is a great way to reconnect with the joy of living.
For a little departure today, I’m going to offer my take on Richard Nelson Bolles’ What Color Is Your Parachute?, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the career advice genre. Parachute has sold over nine million copies since its 1970 debut, is still updated annually, and is the most popular book on job hunting and career change in the world. In addition to giving you what’s likely a unique perspective on the book, I’ll use this review as an introduction to my way of thinking about career satisfaction for those coming to it for the first time.
As I discuss here, Bolles is squarely on target when he suggests that the best way to find career satisfaction is to learn more about yourself—your personality, what you love to do, how you relate to others, and so on—and to focus on developing your character and values. Bolles’ wisdom shines through most clearly, I think, when he discusses career satisfaction from a spiritual perspective. Bolles is a former Episcopal minister, but his most important spiritual message is universal: use your search for career fulfillment as a path to greater love and understanding of yourself and the world.
Bolles is further from the mark where—in keeping with the standard approach to career writing—he recites lists of “tips and tricks” readers are supposed to use to persuade employers to hire them. These techniques range from making sure, in a job interview, that you and the interviewer each talk for about 50% of the time, to ensuring that you memorize and ask five key questions in every interview.
Focusing on applying techniques like these during an interview, or really in any other situation, creates anxiety and discomfort, and ultimately doesn’t help you project the confidence and “togetherness” the techniques are supposed to show. More importantly, knowing yourself and developing your character—as Bolles himself seems to understand—are better strategies for finding career satisfaction than any rehearsed lines or body language.
Parachute‘s Greatest Gifts
I’ll start with the valuable lessons Bolles offers us about career satisfaction, and there are many. As there isn’t space to go into all of them, I’ll discuss what I see as his three most sage pieces of advice.
1. Focus on using the skills you love. Much of today’s career advice recommends picking a career that emphasizes what you’re best at. If you’re a great writer, for instance, look into law or journalism; or, if you’re good at math, consider engineering. There’s also a lot of news and advice out there about which career areas are “hot”—that is, which ones have the most available or high-paying jobs—and the kinds of businesses it would be most lucrative to start or invest in during the near future.
Bolles gives us an inspiring alternative to these approaches: seek out a career that lets you use the skills you love. As he puts it, “the best work, the best career, for you is going to be one that uses your favorite transferable skills,” not one that’s trendy or that you happen to be competent at. For example, law may be a high-paying profession, and you may have the sort of verbal facility that’s prized among lawyers, but if making quilts is really your favorite thing to do, at least look into whether you can make a go of it.
As Bolles recognizes, the mere fact that you’re good at using a skill doesn’t mean you can make a successful and fulfilling career out of it. If you can do a really immaculate job of mopping the floor, for instance, but you lack passion for mopping, you won’t stay happy or motivated for long cleaning for a living, and no amount of money or recognition from your superiors is likely to change that. In other words, “do what you love” isn’t just a lofty ideal—it’s sound, practical career advice.
I’d actually take Bolles’ perspective a step further by observing that, even if you don’t love using a certain skill right now, you may be able to transcend your discomfort with it. The set of skills you enjoy applying, in other words, isn’t necessarily fixed for life. This perspective is particularly important for people who feel called to take a given career path but feel uncomfortable doing what’s necessary to succeed in it.
For example, suppose you want to start your own business, but you feel some anxiety when you imagine promoting your products. Your anxiety about self-promotion doesn’t necessarily need to keep you from becoming an entrepreneur—there may be a practice, whether it’s meditation, conscious breathing, NLP, or something else, that can help you let go of your fear. In other words, if you’re feeling uncomfortable with the idea of pursuing your true calling, there’s likely inner work out there to help you dissolve that discomfort.
2. It’s okay to enjoy what you do. It may sound obvious that liking what we do for a living is a good thing, but many of us, consciously or otherwise, have reservations about taking pleasure in our work and living in general. As Bolles writes, “the reason why this idea—of making enjoyment the key—causes such feelings of uncomfortableness in so many of us is that we have an old historical tradition in this country that insinuates you shouldn’t really enjoy yourself in life. To suffer is virtuous.” If we want genuine satisfaction in what we do, we naturally have to accept that it’s okay for us to love our careers.
How do we locate the places where we’re convinced it’s not okay to enjoy our work, and get comfortable with feeling passion for what we do? My take is that the thoughts and behaviors that keep us from enjoying what we do are often defense mechanisms we develop to protect ourselves against pain. Some somatic psychologists suggest that, when we experience trauma or intense sensation, particularly when we’re very young, we often adopt ways of moving our bodies that numb us to how we’re feeling—perhaps, for instance, by holding our breath or tightening our muscles.
We quickly become so accustomed to using these strategies that they become automatic and habitual. As we unconsciously fall back on them whenever intense sensation comes up in our bodies, we often find ourselves numbing our feelings in response to passion and joy as well as in reaction to suffering. Thus, we not only protect ourselves from pain—we shut down our ability to feel joy and aliveness in our careers and elsewhere.
One technique I find useful for noticing, and letting go of, these ways of numbing ourselves to feeling is simple: just pay close attention to your breathing and the sensations in your body when you feel happiness arising in you. Notice any muscles you’re contracting—perhaps by tensing your jaw, clenching your fists, tightening your stomach, or something else—to limit the joy you can feel. See if you can keep your breathing steady and deep, simply allowing any intensely pleasurable sensations to wash over you and pass away. You may find yourself experiencing a passion for your career you didn’t think was possible.
3. Appreciate the process, not just the products, of your work. In our culture, when we think about our careers, our attention is usually on the tangible things we can get out of them—the money we earn, the possessions they help us acquire, the prestige they give us among peers and friends, and so on. We aren’t normally as focused on enjoying the activities we do while we’re working. Too often, we see those as a necessary evil we must endure to get the perks we want, and we spend much of our workdays eagerly awaiting the moment we can leave.
When we rely entirely on the things our careers bring us for fulfillment, instead of learning to enjoy the process of working, we’re often left disappointed. You likely know more than one person who reached the pinnacle of their career, whether in terms of money, status, seniority, or something else, and found themselves asking “is this really all there is?” The despair this realization creates can be intense—celebrities and wealthy people who, despite their success, use drugs and alcohol to “take the edge off” come to mind.
Bolles wisely emphasizes the value of learning to take our work one step at a time, and actually love what we’re doing moment by moment, in addition to enjoying the fruits of our labors. As Bolles puts it, “your Mission is to take one step at a time, even when you don’t yet see where it all is leading, or what the Grand Plan is, or what your overall Mission in life is.”
One question Bolles may leave in readers’ minds is how we can learn to appreciate each moment we spend working. To many of us, it seems obvious that it’s best to enjoy and participate fully in each moment of our lives, but we nonetheless find our attempts to “live in the Now” blocked by frustration, distraction and anxiety. I’ll describe three techniques I’ve found useful for helping people stay focused on, and even enjoy, the routine tasks they do while working.
Take your attention off your self-image. We tend to obsess over the money, prestige and other perks our careers can bring us when we’re fixated on the image we project to others. When our minds are on the perks we can get out of our careers, in other words, it’s often because we’re thinking about the ways we want to impress or please other people, and worrying about how making a mistake would affect others’ opinions of us.
If you find yourself doing this while you’re working, see if you can instead turn your attention entirely to the activity you’re doing. Become as aware of each movement you’re making, each detail of what’s in front of you, each rule to be followed, and every other aspect of your task, as you can be. See if you can absorb your attention in your work so deeply that it’s almost as if, for a time, you “merge” with your work, and the work begins to do itself.
When you enter this meditative state, which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously called a state of “flow,” you may find appreciation for what you do arising naturally.
Bring your awareness into your body. We’re often prevented from fully focusing on and appreciating our work by distracting thoughts about the past and future. These thoughts are often either painful memories or anxiety scenarios about things that might go wrong in our lives. Enjoying what we’re doing, moment by moment, becomes difficult when we feel besieged by this sort of thinking.
One way to return your attention to the present moment is to focus your awareness on what you’re feeling in your body. Notice, for instance, the steady rise and fall of your breathing, any tension you may be holding onto in your muscles, any tingling or prickling sensations you may feel on the surface of your skin, and so on. When your attention is on how you’re feeling in your body, your awareness will naturally rest in this moment, because every experience you’re having in your body, by definition, is happening right now.
This practice can help curb the thoughts that would otherwise keep you from enjoying the experience of working, and bring more satisfaction and productivity to what you do.
Focus on the contribution you’re making. Another way to cultivate appreciation for your day-to-day work is to keep in mind what you’re contributing to others with what you do. In almost every moment you spend working, whether you’re aware of it or not, you are making a contribution to another person or group of people in the world. Perhaps you’re participating in creating technologies that make people’s lives easier, helping customers find the products and services they want, giving moral support to your coworkers, or something else.
This, I’ve found, is another useful tool for reconnecting with feelings of joy and aliveness in your work. When you recognize that you aren’t just working for your own fulfillment—you’re helping others find the same in their own lives, and making a positive impact in the world—you’ll likely gain access to an appreciation for working you may have been missing before.
(This is Part One of a two-part review. Click here to read Part Two.)
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.