It is remarkable how liberating it feels to be able to see that your thoughts are just thoughts and that they are not ‘you’ or ‘reality’.
This week, Alice started by reading us four sentences, in order. We sat with our eyes closed and listened to them. It is hard to replicate the activity here but hopefully I can give you some sense of it. Try to read the sentences one at a time.
- John was on his way to school.
- He was worried about the maths lesson.
- He was not sure he could control the class again today.
- It was not part of a caretaker’s duty.
After each sentence I had a mental picture of the situation – and I had to keep updating this as each new sentence was read out. In my head John was first a child, then a teacher before finally turning out to be a caretaker.
This activity was to show us how we are always automatically adding to what we hear to try to make meaning. We don’t usually notice it – only when someone takes us through something like this activity, which more actively plays tricks on us.
These thoughts become a running commentary in our mind, going on just below the surface and influencing our emotions. It helps to try and identify this commentary and these interpretations as thoughts rather than facts.
After everything we have done in the sessions so far this idea doesn’t feel like something new. We have regularly been encouraged to see thoughts as ‘just’ thoughts, popping in and out of the sky of our mind.
We have also identified that often the thoughts we have can make it more difficult to practice mindfulness and meditation – ones such as: “This isn’t going to help… I’m useless at this…this doesn’t make any sense.” We’ve been encouraged to move from these thoughts back to our awareness of the breath.
How do our thoughts usually behave?
Alice described our thoughts as behaving like a radio or a cinema screen with words scrolling across, an ongoing stream just below our consciousness. They often pretend that they are rational questions: “What’s wrong with me? Who would want to know me? How can I stop feeling this way?”
This makes us think (mistakenly) that if we think hard enough, there might be an answer. We often take them as an accurate reflection of reality and get sucked into believing they are facts.
We were encouraged, during a breathing space meditation, to try and ‘watch’ this screen and wait for the mental events that are thoughts to arrive. If the metaphor of a cinema screen doesn’t help then try some of the others I’ve mentioned – for example the mind as a sky with thoughts as clouds (some light and fluffy, some big and thunderous) moving across them.
Becoming more aware of our thoughts as thoughts and not as facts helps us to deal with them in a more skilful way. This stops us letting ourselves get dragged into the vicious cycle of rumination, following a train of negative thoughts that can change our mental space without us realising they are doing so.
Next time we’ll look in more detail at a new way of dealing with these thoughts.