If you set a timer for one minute and sit in complete silence, I’d be willing to bet you would have at least one thought enter your mind. You might try to tell yourself “don’t think of something, don’t think of something” but that’s already two thoughts and I’ve won my bet. Often times when I teach clients about mindfulness a common response is something along the lines of, “I just can’t do it, my mind has too many thoughts. I must not be doing it right.”
Most people are surprised to find out that clearing our mind of thoughts is not the point of mindfulness – it’s to observe, describe, and detach from various aspects of our experience, including our thoughts.
Our minds are like computers, working very hard to compile and make sense of information in our environment and experiences. Sometimes we are aware of the thoughts that pop into our minds and would like nothing more than for them to go away. At other times they may seem fleeting or like background noise and we might find them easy to tune out. You might notice that at times thoughts can elicit powerful emotions and influence our behaviors or perceptions about a situation. They can feel like they have complete power over us and our actions. For instance, if you had the thought “I’m so awkward around others” and really thought about this over and over, you’d likely start to feel pretty anxious about social situations and maybe even feel worthless, leading to avoidance of social situations.
But what if I were to tell you that we are not our thoughts? Yes, we can have them, but they do not have to define us or mean anything about ourselves or our experience unless we want them to. It is possible to disconnect our thoughts from our actions so that the above scenario could instead be, “I’m having the thought I’m so awkward around others” or “I’m noticing I’m having the thought I’m so awkward around others.” It’s possible to notice these thoughts just as you notice the color of the walls in your bedroom or notice the car driving down the street.
I like to think of thoughts as mail that just needs to be sorted. The sorting process does not necessarily need to involve proving if a thought is true or false, but rather evaluating if it is helpful in living the life you want to live or does it only produce extra distress and suffering? Try picturing some of your distressing thoughts as junk mail that can be acknowledged and then placed in the recycling or trash. Alternatively, helpful thoughts that lead us towards vitality can be viewed as greeting cards or magazines that we can open and sit with for a while. Thoughts that pop up like automatic reminders or our to-do lists can be ranked for priority to address, just as we might do with bills or important notices.
It takes practice to interact with our thoughts in different ways and to integrate the skill of just noticing our thoughts instead of automatically assuming they are a meaningful part of our experience. When we are able to detach from our thoughts, it opens up the possibilities for how we view ourselves, our experiences, and others.