In my Why It’s So Hard to Be Happy post I talked about how we all have emo brains that throw negative thoughts at us all day, errrry day and how we have to notice when we’re having thoughts that we don’t want to have so we can redirect our energy to achieve our goals. But how do you actually do that and who is that asshole in your head that won’t shut up?
Meet Your Two Minds
That asshole in your head is what Zen practitioners call The Thinking Mind and you, the one “hearing” those thoughts, are The Observing Mind. You think thoughts but you also hear them inside your head.
(I know, it’s super weird to think about having two minds and then you think about how you’re Thinking Mind is thinking about how you’re the Observing Mind not The Thinking Mind and ughhhh trust me it’s a mindfuck. Try not to get stuck on this part.)
Still with me? Cool.
You have control over The Thinking Mind in the sense that you can think about anything you want at any time. Picture a butterfly. There you go, you controlled your Thinking Mind. But, what color was it, what was it doing, and what else did you picture with it? What else did thinking of the butterfly make you think about? Where did all of that stuff come from?
Your Thinking Mind is like a DJ. It will take requests but it’ll play what it wants too.
Your Thinking Mind is always going, going, going. It’s constantly digging through the overflowing box of memories you’ve got stored in your mental attic, looking for things that might be worthwhile to bring up. It’s entire goal is to make you think about everything that could harm you (physically, mentally, or socially) so you can avoid it in the future and, ultimately, live longer.
If you’ve ever tried meditating or even just laid in bed trying to fall asleep at night, you’ve experienced how good your Thinking Mind is at it’s job. It will bring up that weird thing you said in 9th grade that made everyone avoid you for a week, the embarrassing typo you had in an email yesterday, and the validity of every decision you’ve ever made. Before you know it you’re lost in a thought spiral that’s so far removed from where you started that you don’t even know why you’re thinking about your beloved but dead childhood pet, yet here we are.
When this happens your Observing Mind is just along for the ride, passively accepting every shitty thing your Thinking Mind brings up while you feel all of the emotions that go along with all of the thoughts. Now you’re sad/anxious/depressed, completely disconnected from what’s actually happening right now, and you wasted 20 minutes on that mental trip. Thanks Thinking Mind.
By now you might be wondering how you stop your Thinking Mind from thinking.
Sorry, you can’t. Despite the popular misconception that having a blank mind is the goal of meditation, you can’t stop your Thinking Mind from thinking. What you can do is develop your Observing Mind to have better awareness of and control over your Thinking Mind. Practicing this skill will not stop negative thoughts from surfacing but it will allow you to observe (“hear”) the thought, acknowledge it, and let it go rather than fixating on it and going down an anxiety-filled rabbit hole.
Check in with yourself when you aren’t feeling awesome.
What are you thinking about? Is it something you can do anything about? Is it something that’s worthwhile to think about? Is it hurting you to think about? Would you be better off without these thoughts?
Don’t just try to push the unwanted thoughts out of your mind. That usually backfires and then all you can do is think about the thing you’re trying not to think about. It’s like when you go on a diet and then all you can think about is food. Thinking that you don’t want to think about something just makes you think about it. I know, it’s annoying but it is what it is.
Instead, take a step back from the thoughts and allow your Observing Mind to take control. Acknowledge the thoughts are happening but that whatever crappy thing your Thinking Mind is bringing up isn’t actually happening right now. Close your eyes, focus on taking a deep breath and really feel the air move in and out of your body. Take a few more breaths until you don’t feel whatever shitty feeling your Thinking Mind was peddling, or at least until you don’t feel it as strongly anymore.
Just realizing when your Thinking Mind is dragging you down a negative thought spiral and taking a moment to reconnect with the present may be enough to allow your Thinking Brain to move on for now but it’ll keep the hits coming so remember that this is an ongoing practice, not a quick fix.
Read How to Handle Negative Thoughts for actionable steps to take your practice to the next level.