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Mindful : December 2015
With habits of distraction—such as constantly checking our phone or spending excessive time watching TV—the underlying thinking is typ- ically that our present experience is boring or unpleasant, and that doing something familiar will be more interesting or enjoyable. Habits of doing—when we’re leaning in to the next thing we need to get done with a tense energy—tend to have the underlying thought pattern that something bad will happen if I don’t keep moving. Mindfulness provides skills and practices to loosen our identification with thoughts, help- ing us see that the content of a thought is not inherently “true.” With attention, thoughts can be observed and met with wisdom rather than being acted out in habitual ways. For example, when a familiar stimulus triggers the thought, some ice cream would be nice now, we can observe this as “wanting” or “wanting thought,” rather than automatically going to the freezer and scooping out a bowl of ice cream. We can deepen our awareness of the emotions and bodily feelings that often underlie and spur our habits of thought and action. And where our thoughts have hardened into beliefs that perpet- uate unhealthy habits, we can investigate these beliefs and untangle ourselves from them. Observing thoughts, letting them come and go One of the most powerful realizations that we can come to in mindfulness practice is to see that we can bring awareness to thoughts and beliefs rather than being lost in them or ruled by them. There is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, bringing awareness to feeling angry at something a colleague said—feeling the tension and heat in our face and chest, paying attention to our feelings of annoyance or the thoughts of what we might say—and, on the other hand, being swept up in the anger and the narra- tive in our mind of how wrong they are, or what we’ll say to them. When we bring awareness to our thoughts, choices open up for us—including the choice not to believe or identify with our thoughts. When we fail to bring awareness to our thoughts, however, we have little choice but to act out old thought patterns and follow them. So, an essential mindfulness skill is to develop a healthy relationship with our thoughts—see- ing thoughts as ephemeral products of the mind rather than the truth. When we practice mind- fulness of breathing, or other objects of aware- ness, we may get caught up in planning, worry- ing, daydreaming, or remembering something from the past. When we become aware that our attention has shifted, we pause and invite our attention back to our breath in a kind, gentle, and non-judging way. It can be helpful to make a mental note, “ thinking,” “planning,” “day- dreaming,” or “worried thought.” The practice of naming or noting “thinking” can help us observe thoughts as passing phenomena, rather than getting lost in the content of the thoughts. An attitude of kindness and non-judgment helps us develop a healthy relationship with our thoughts; there is no need to try to empty the mind. If thoughts can be experienced without resistance, clinging, or judgment, they cease to If you notice your attention caught by an unhealthy distraction—such as spacing out on the web—ask yourself, “What would I have to experience if I didn’t turn toward this habit?”