Allowing your thoughts – Part 2

 If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent!

Pema Chödrön

We can think of our thoughts like trains which pull into a station – we can decide whether we want to get on a particular train or not. One train might be ‘planning the summer holiday’, and this is indeed the perfect time to start planning, so we get on this ‘train of thought’ and ride along for a few stops. But if the train is called ‘anxiously ruminating on something which happened three weeks ago and which I really need to move on from’, then we can decide to let this particular train go past.

Becoming aware of our thought patterns, of which train has pulled into the station just now, can take a little practice. Often, thoughts seem to have their own momentum, taking us along for a ride we don’t seem to remember signing up for. In order to get off the train before it takes us to places we don’t want to go to, it is helpful to develop our present-moment awareness.

‘What is really happening right now?’ We take a moment to pause, to tune in. We notice the breath in our body. It is quite remarkable, the way our body is continually adjusting to the breath flowing in, the breath flowing out. Where do we feel the movement most strongly? In the belly, or in the chest expanding and contracting? Or even at the tip of the nose, the cool air entering, the warm air leaving? We might listen to the sounds around us – with a sense of being open and curious. What is the temperature of the air? Perhaps we can do a quick body scan – noticing where the body might be in contact with the ground or a chair, or any strong sensations. After a few minutes of this, we will probably notice that our thoughts have shifted in some way.

It can also be helpful to place our thoughts into a larger perspective. In Buddhism this is sometimes called ‘big sky awareness’. We can think of our mind as the vast open sky, and our thoughts like clouds which float across the sky, coming and going, fleeting and ephemeral. Other helpful nature images can be seeing our thoughts like leaves floating past in a stream, or standing behind a waterfall and watching our thoughts tumbling down in front of us like water, while we remain dry and safe.

If we find our thoughts really affecting the quality of our lives, it can also be useful to seek counselling or other supports, and/or to learn mindfulness from a qualified teacher in the context of a supportive group. Strong, insistent thought patterns can be a signal pointing towards unresolved emotions, and we might benefit from skilled support as we work through these.

Our thoughts are just part of who we are. If we don’t give them too much power, but still engage with them respectfully, our thoughts can be friendly allies rather than something we need to fight against and control.

Weekly practice idea:

Stop from time to time and ask yourself – ‘what is really happening right now?’ Tune into your body, into the environment. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Allowing your thoughts

‘The cat ignored becomes the tiger.’

Carl Jung

‘Allowing your thoughts’ is the second of Christopher Germer’s ‘Five Pathways to Self Compassion’. When we are caught in unhelpful thinking patterns, it can be tempting to try and control our thoughts. Yet as the quote by Carl Jung illustrates, this can often lead to giving thoughts more strength and power instead. In fact, one of the main ways in which we can get entangled in negative thinking is by giving thoughts far more power than they deserve. As the wonderful quote from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy goes:

‘Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.’

‘Allowing your thoughts’ doesn’t mean letting our thoughts run riot and out of control. For example, if we’re obsessed with thoughts of revenge, or enmeshed in a constant stream of negative self-talk, this is clearly not helpful. Yet positive thinking, where we manically try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, also doesn’t work, because it’s not based on reality. The mindful approach to our thoughts is to avoid either extreme – we don’t suppress our thoughts, but neither do we let them run our lives.

Thoughts become powerful when we get entangled in them, when we invest them with emotional energy and a narrative. For example, we might feel that during a meeting at work, other people were listened to far more attentively and respectfully than we were. This may in fact be what happened. If we have a strong narrative in our lives about being treated unjustly, this may evoke powerful emotions in us, leading to obsess about this for days to come. And because of our strong confirmation bias, where we actively seek out evidence which supports our beliefs, any future slight, whether real or imagined, will feed the flame of unhelpful thinking.

Mindfulness helps to bring us back to earth – to be aware of what is happening right now, rather than what we might be imagining. Next week, we will look at some simple mindfulness practices which can help us to allow the natural flow of our thoughts to occur, neither blocking them, nor becoming entangled by them.

Weekly practice idea:

Take time this week to notice your patterns of thinking. Are there certain thinking patterns you seem to return to again and again?

Anja Tanhane

Nourishing our thoughts

Considering they’re ephemeral and secret, our thoughts can be amazingly powerful. We usually have pretty clear ideas about what kind of thoughts are acceptable to us, and which ones are not. Sometimes we may feel bombarded by our thoughts, to the point they become oppressive; whereas at other times, we might feel quite at ease with the way they come and go in our minds. At times our thinking can lead us astray, causing us to lose touch with what’s going on. We’ve probably all had the disconcerting experience of believing something to be true, only to find out later that it wasn’t. This can be the case with abstract facts, but can also include our judgments about people, including ourselves. We seem to be most vulnerable to being lead astray in our thinking when we are feeling stressed or under threat in some way. In those circumstances, it’s easy to mistake the rope for a snake, or the tired look on the face of a colleague for a disapproving frown which might spell trouble for us.

In the coming weeks we will look at how we can often over-identify with our thoughts, and some strategies for loosening their grip on us. In the meantime, it can be interesting to reflect on how we actually nourish our thoughts. Just as the food we eat has an impact on our bodies, so do the sense impressions we receive impact on our thoughts. This doesn’t mean we should try to become puritanical, and only allow ‘pure’ sounds, sights etc into our consciousness. Yet the sensory information we take in does make a difference. An extreme example might be someone who is locked in their room, playing violent video games for 18 hours every day. Or else listening to angry talk-back radio all day long, gradually allowing the anger and hostility to seep into their mind. We can easily see how neither of those scenarios are conducive to clear and compassionate thinking. At the other end of the spectrum, spending even ten minutes in a pleasant outdoor environment such as a nice park or garden can allow our thinking to become more calm and positive.

We don’t want to build a ‘cone of silence’ around us, but on the other hand, we often do have choices about some of the sensory information we nourish our thinking with. Nowadays, I find that I often drive without the radio on. This doesn’t mean I have a rule that I’m ‘not allowed’ to listen to the radio when I drive. Sometimes I listen to the radio, and other times I listen to music. Yet after a busy day, it’s often a relief to not add yet more information to a mind which has already been buzzing for hours at work.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, pay attention to the ways in which you ‘feed’ your thinking mind. What do you notice, and what might this mean?

Anja Tanhane

Softening into the body – Part 2

Each day we have many opportunities for softening into our bodies – some of these can be formal and quite deliberate, while others are more subtle. One of the easiest way we can allow our bodies to soften is by using our breath. The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a wonderful expression – ‘let your breath be received in a softening belly.’ Our stomachs often feel stress, so the idea of softening our bellies as the breath flows into it is very appealing.

We can also breathe into other parts of the body which feel tight, or where there may be some pain. For example, if our elbow feels sore, rather than tensing the muscles around it, we can imagine that we’re sending our breath into the elbow, and soothing and softening the area around it. We might want to imagine a sensation of warmth as part of the breath, and also colours. Other meditation teachers use images like warm honey, or a clear white light, or that the muscles start to melt like water, and then evaporate like gas. We can choose the images which suit us best – and these may also change over time. One day, the healing colour may be blue, and on another day, it could be oozing and golden like honey. Once we’ve practised using our breath in this way, we can come back to it throughout the day. All we need to do is to pause for a moment, and to allow our breath, with or without an image, to soften into our body.

Other practices which are helpful are those which work directly with the tension in our muscles, such as massage, acupuncture, and similar healing practices. Stretching is also wonderful for loosening muscles – for example during yoga or Tai Chi. If we spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, we can also look up office stretches online and remind ourselves to do these regularly throughout the day.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways of softening into our bodies, and something which our bodies really appreciate, is to make sure we don’t rush around from morning till night, day after day. At most workplaces now, the idea of stopping work for morning tea and afternoon tea seems rather quaint. Even lunchtime is no longer sacrosanct. Yet we only function at optimum efficiency if we take regular breaks. We’re all different in this regard – some people seem to thrive on being on the go all day long, while others would find this clearly exhausting. We can experiment with what works best for us, and then do our best to fit these regular breaks into our day. Sometimes we only need to pause for a few moments and breathe, and already we feel much rejuvenated.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one of the suggestions above which resonate for you, and schedule it into your week. Notice how this feels for your body.

Anja Tanhane