Get Off The Thought Train

I often find myself explaining the tenants of mindfulness and how great it is to incorporate it into your life, especially if you struggle with anxiety and depression.  What is it about mindfulness that assists in reducing feelings of anxiety and depression?  I think of mindfulness as an invitation to create space inside of your mind.  When we’re having difficulty with anxiety, it can often feel like our brains are incredibly cramped, filled to the brim with unruly thoughts about what can go wrong and how we must solve these future-oriented problems.


I know how difficult that mental space can be and how desperate you feel to get out of it.  So what do I mean by creating space inside of your mind?  Imagine your brain as a house.  Inside of that house you’ve got many rooms to explore.  For some reason, you just cannot get out of the kitchen.  Every time you think you’re ready to go to the living room, something pulls you right back into that kitchen and nothing you do seems to free you from that space. 


Mindfulness says “Okay, so you’ve got this kitchen.  It’s not going anywhere and we know that for some reason you really seem to want to analyze this space and fret over each item.  You can stop analyzing now.  Allow all of your items and this space to just exist without your interference.  Now, walk out of the kitchen.  You can walk backwards and keep looking at it if you want, but just keep moving.  Okay. You’re out of the kitchen.  Let’s go over to the living room.  I see you’re thinking about the kitchen; gently bring your attention back to this living room.  Great.  Yep, I see you’re wanting to go back and make sure that the stove is off; gently bring your attention back to this living room.  Great.” And so on and so forth.  


Another way of looking at mindfulness is using the analogy of clouds.  We’ve all seen them; We all know how they can sometimes look like one thing and become another.  The same is true with our thoughts.  I can have the thought “I need to do laundry” and in about .5 seconds that morphs into “I can’t believe I said that thing today” and in less than 30 seconds I’ve had about 150 different thoughts. 

When we look at clouds, do we have to analyze each and every cloud that we see? No, because that would take up literally all day.  The same principle is true with our thoughts.  We can have them, they can look really scary or really benign, and the problem does not lie in the thought itself, rather it’s in how we approach our thoughts.


Instead of trying to figure out what a thought means, we can simply see it as a byproduct of a stimulus and nothing more.  One way to practice this “watching of thoughts” can be through meditation, which is an intentional practice of watching thoughts without judgment or attachment to them.  It’s like being on a train and watching the scenery unfold outside. Wouldn’t it be exhausting if every time you saw a tree you informed the conductor that you needed to get off and inspect that tree?  It’s just as equally exhausting informing yourself that you need to stop what you’re doing and obsess over a thought or analyze it. 


App’s like headspace and insight timer (among many other great ones) are fantastic tools to practice the art of watching your thoughts via meditation.  You don’t have to be an expert to meditate and there is no such thing as being a perfect meditator.  I know people who’ve been meditating daily for over 20 years and report on the challenges of detaching from thoughts and just watching them.  It’s easy to get swept up into the current, but the practice is in acknowledging that you got swept up and gently removing yourself from the thought stream.