Mindfulness is magnificently powerful; as undoubtedly the thoughts that cross the mind are. We even see how influential thought can be in medical research: the placebo effect’s ability to measurably improve symptoms has been demonstrated in clinical trials.[i] But what does this mean for us when worry or sadness crosses our mind? And if we’re caught in a negative thought pattern, what can we do about it?
Thoughts Shape Our Reality
We have an estimated 60,000 thoughts per day, with about 95% of them being habitual. Because caution and fear helped keep our ancestors alive, about 80% of these habitual thoughts tend to be more negative than positive – even though in modern society, these anxieties don’t serve the pivotal purpose they once did. [ii]
But this doesn’t mean we have to be victim to these mental habits. Our brains aren’t so hard-wired as we used to think they were: the discovery of neuroplasticity revealed to us that the brain is continually adjusting and reorganizing. Our thought patterns are not set in stone, but rather the brain forms and alters neural connections throughout life, based on environmental conditions. [iii]
This is particularly wonderful because, while we may not be able to control much of what happens in our lives, our thoughts about and approach to what happens absolutely has the capacity to change our experience of life. If you wake up and think, “Today is going to be awful” it probably will be. Conversely, if you start focusing your attention on pleasant experiences throughout your day – the softness of your sweater, the brilliance of the leaves outside – chances are you’re going to feel a bit more content.
The logic then goes that if attitude informs reality, and reality informs neural pathways, then our attitude can re-wire our brain. In other words, if we bring our attention to our positive thoughts, gradually, our brain will remap it’s thought patterns to align with this newfound positivity. It’s like our mind can pave a new positive road and the more we take it, the old negative one to becomes overgrown. The natural question that follows is how we can break negative thought patters and create a more positive mindset.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
It’s pretty empowering to realize that we can shape a life of enjoyment – but where we get into trouble is when we mistake the power of our thoughts as being one with them. Mindfulness is meditative philosophy introduced to the western medical community primarily by biomedical scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, and its steadfastly garnering support from medical research.[iv] Simply put, it encourages focusing on the present in the moment and becoming aware of our thoughts. It teaches us to view thoughts from a position of non-judgmental observation, which helps us to realize that we have thoughts, but we – our innate being, core self, spirit, soul, whatever you want to call it – are not synonymous with these thoughts.
Mindfulness shows us that thoughts are simply experiences that come and go, and we can play an active role in how we engage with them. We can choose to entertain one that comes our way, even obsess over it, or we can choose to let it float on by and make way for the next one to come along. If a thought is negative, we don’t have to try to stuff it down: we can simply observe the experience until it passes (and it will – the mind is great at coming up with new thoughts.) Or even if a thought is pleasant, we can learn to view it in a non-grasping, healthfully unattached way. For even nice thoughts eventually pass.
It is in this way that we can utilize our thoughts to have a positive experience of life – one in which we are content and healthy and fulfilled – by letting go of the thoughts that don’t serve us and appreciating those that do. Over time, fostering this attitude of non-judgment and awareness will encourage psychological flourishing.
Not Everything You Think Is True
One more point worth bringing up as we think about thinking is that our thoughts are not facts, although we may falsely believe they are sometimes. And thank goodness, right? Imagine if every time some terrible self-narrative emerges in your mind (I’m not good enough; I can’t do this; and so on) it was true. Sure some thoughts are truthful, but certainly not all.
This is especially pertinent to those who face mental illness. Imagine, for a moment, someone with anxiety or depression, caught in a spiral of rumination. If thoughts equal truth, then – watch out! – all those fears will happen, just because they popped into their head. Now this person has to feel bad about feeling bad. What nonsense.
With practices like mindfulness (perhaps in conjunction with medicine and therapy, depending on personal needs), we can learn to distinguish fact from fiction, and chose the positive over the negative.[v] We can tame the “monkey mind” as it’s called in Buddhism – named for the notion that thoughts come and go like a monkey swinging wildly through the trees – and have better control over how we think. We can find peace and acceptance, developing a new relationship to our self, our feelings, our experiences, and our life that is filled with positivity and compassion.