Free Therapy #80: Minding our Minds

This picture has been reproduced by kind permission of stormthorgerson.com.

“Oh you can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks.
Yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it’s starin’ right back.”

Taylor Goldsmith

In my clinical practice and in the class I am currently teaching at the Methodist Church (see last week’s column), my main aim is to help people deal effectively with their suffering. Whether someone is a client or a student or just a person in the world, there are two essential aspects to their psychological distress.

There is the “what” and the “how.” The “what” refers to the content of their difficulty, the objective reality that their story points to as it spills out of them. It could be an event or something someone said or did to them. It could be something the client said or did. Sometimes we will identify our problem as symptoms of a “disorder” such as depression or anxiety.

The more important (and interesting) part of our suffering is conveyed by that word “how.” This is the subjective aspect, the unique process we bring to our experience. As Steven Covey tells us, we don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are and when we describe our suffering, we offer the astute listener clues to our inner world. What most of us can’t see (and why a trained therapist is helpful) is how our view of our problem is the problem.

In The Reality Slap, Russ Harris reminds us that the complex device we use to cope with life – our individual mind – is flawed. It views reality from its limited perspective and cannot see its own limits. And it never stops talking. It is not unlike the play-by-play announcer for a televised sports event. Its non-stop commentary “hijacks our attention” as it attacks its perceptions of reality with arguments, complaints, resistance, despair and worry. And meanwhile, reality remains, like our pet dog, staring back at us with those big, expectant eyes. Our arguments with reality do not change it. And so naturally, we feel bad.

Until we see what we’re doing and understand why it’s not working, we’ll keep running the same experiment and getting the same results. So what exactly is not working? The first thing we can notice is our focus. We can mind our minds. Where are we applying our attention? Are we focused on what is true and real here and now or are we lost in time? When our minds are full of conceptions of past or future, we are no longer here.

So the first step is to connect with the present moment. Some call this Presence and Harris calls it Connection. Whatever we call it, we can do it anytime and anywhere. We can reset our minds when we pause and notice what is here and now. We can notice our smooth, even, breathing and how relaxed or tense our body feels. We can step outside of our minds and notice the contours of our thoughts and emotions with genuine interest and curiosity. We can notice, observe and directly experience external reality as it exists all around us. We can calmly absorb and welcome all that we can see, hear, feel, smell and taste. Why resist it?

There are many ways to connect with the present moment. Harris suggests the mindfulness exercise where we imagine we are a tree, rooted in the physical reality of the here and now. When we attend to our body and notice how it feels in the present moment, we must step out of our mind momentarily. Same with our breathing. We connect with a natural process that keeps us alive. What happens when we stop to notice it? When we attend to our present self as we are here and now, we can feel ourselves relaxing. From there we can “branch out” and connect with our surroundings through all our senses.

Mindfulness exercises like this are simple and take very little time and yet we will make excuses to avoid them. Notice the thoughts that don’t want you to be present or mindful. Notice impatience or annoyance if it shows up. Notice the judgments and notice that when you are noticing, you are mindful. The more we notice judging, the less we judge noticing.

Our suffering is maintained by the thinking part of us, our judgmental or evaluative mind. There is this other part, however. We have this ability to notice without judging. We can observe our thoughts and feelings and merely note their existence. As we step into this frame or point of awareness, we can sense how our thoughts about reality separate or remove us from directly experiencing it. Too often, we pay more attention to our stories about reality than what it actually is, without our elaborations and spin.

Many of us fuse with our thoughts as if they are the very same thing as what they describe. But of course they are not even close. Try describing the taste of sugar to someone who has never tasted it. Or the color blue to someone who has never seen it. The only way we “get it” is when we actually, physically get it. Eating a hot, tasty pizza is much more fun than thinking about it.

All of us know this but it does not stop us from getting lost in the labyrinth of our minds when we are suffering. Then the thoughts become real. We believe them. Every word. Why is that? We can become depressed or anxious merely by dwelling on certain feelings, memories, images, thoughts and sensations. Harris writes, “The more we get entangled in our thoughts, the less attention we pay to what we are doing and the more ineffectively we act.”

I suffer. You suffer. Everyone suffers. No one is happy all the time. Everything changes and eventually ends. Nothing lasts. Our lives do not always go according to plan. Our expectations are not always met. Life often seems unfair or unjust. It doesn’t always make sense. People let us down. They don’t always act kind, loving or loyal. They hurt us. We hurt them. Misunderstandings happen. Some relationships cannot be healed. Pain is inevitable. We lose sometimes. We fail. We make mistakes. This is life.

In the midst of all our suffering, our minds try to help and frequently make it worse. We can’t “fix” or change the past but we want to. Our minds picture what that would look like and show it to us. Over and over. Our minds project into the future and frighten us with scary endings. Our minds love the words “should” and “but” and use them often. Our minds know how our lives “should” be. Our minds acknowledge the good “but” always point out the negative. Harris suggests we “think of our minds as master storytellers who don’t care if their stories are helpful or not; their main aim is to capture our attention.”

But is this the problem? Yes, life is difficult. Yes, all of us suffer because life is difficult. And yes, our minds try to make it all better but invariably make it worse. But is this the problem? Harris wants us to go deeper. He wants us to understand that if this is all we know, we will remain stuck “in a thick cloud of psychological smog.”

Harris wants us to know: “Our thoughts are not the problem. Our thoughts do not create the psychological smog. It is the way we respond to our thoughts that create the smog.”

When some thoughts show up, they bring a world of sadness or fear with them because of what we make them mean. At that moment, these thoughts are not just words. They become the reality they represent and as we cling to them or fight with them, we are no longer present. We are no longer noticing. We are not mindful. We are not connected with our life as it is in this moment.

When we fuse with our thoughts, they seem to contain “the absolute truth or commands we must obey, or threats we must eliminate, or something we have to give all our attention to.” When we step back from them and defuse from them, they lose their power to control us. We see them as words and pictures. That is all. Harris states it simply: “If our thoughts are helpful, we use them, and if they are unhelpful, we defuse them.”

What is the secret of Defusion? Noticing. This is the first step. When we step back and notice what and how we are thinking, we are no longer inside the thought. It is no longer inside us. We are separate from the thought. There it is. There is that thought. And that’s all it is. Just a thought.

All day long we will fall back into Fusion with our thoughts. This is normal. We all do this. When we notice we are uncomfortable, we can turn our attention from thinking to noticing our thinking. And perhaps we might notice the judgments, self-blame and criticism that erupts when we realize we are doing “it” again. Notice that too.

Each of us is skilled at trapping ourselves in hopeless, thinking circles. And feeling defeated and powerless. We can reset and step out of this anytime we like. And the more we keep noticing and practicing these mindfulness skills, the easier it will become.

Douglas Craig

Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for more than 35 years. He believes in magic and is a Warriors fan..

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments