How to Catch a Thought: 3 Tools for Mindfulness
“Your task is not to seek for love, but to seek and find the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” —Rumi
As humans, we are creatures of habit. We not only stick to the same brand of shampoo, but we also have many mental, emotional, and behavioural patterns that we fall back on day to day. This isn’t always a bad thing: mindlessly getting the same brand of shampoo every time saves us probably twenty minutes of careful comparison. We can’t be mindful all the time.
The problem is that some of our habits are coping mechanisms for stress that have negative consequences. Have you ever found yourself looking down into an empty bag of chips and wondered how you got there? You probably had a stressful thought or emotion, and the brain went right to the quickest comfort it knew.
In yoga, these patterns are called samskaras. Taking the same path to the river each day wears down the grass, making it easier to walk on. We forget that there are other, more overgrown, but perhaps more useful paths. Mindfulness means catching the stressor earlier, so you can carefully choose your actions. You might still eat the bag of chips, but at least you chose to eat the bag of chips.
The holiday season can be an excellent opportunity for some thought hunting. With family stress and the abundance of food and booze in a dark cold season, we will have neon signs pointing us down our well travelled feel-better-fast paths. Here are some tools:
- Catch your actions
It’s hard to catch a thought, but a little easier to catch an action. When you notice the empty bag of chips, ask yourself what you are feeling and thinking. The thought is usually lurking just behind the action, and the emotion just behind that.
Freewriting is a practice of writing whatever is going through your mind without stopping, editing, or deleting. Even if it starts out with “I don’t know what to write, I have nothing to say...” follow that and eventually it will shift. Spend five or ten minutes doing this. When you reread what you wrote, imagine it was written by a good friend. You’ll create enough distance from your thoughts to observe them, and we tend to judge our friends with much more compassion than when we judge ourselves.
- Time for reflection
Whether you sit and meditate for 45 minutes, go to a yoga class, take a long walk, or stare out the window for a while, you are creating time for reflection. Busyness is a major culprit for mindlessness. We jam pack our schedules so full that we avoid ourselves all day, and then wonder why we are lying awake at night barraged with thoughts. In quiet time, try repeating your thoughts to yourself as they come up. This will help make them a bit more visible.
Being able to see your samskaras is the first and most important tool for changing your patterns, but it’s not the only tool. There are many techniques that can come next (I talked about some in a previous post). It’s not easy, and it won’t happen in an instant. Know that every attempt to take a new path to the river wears down the grass just a little bit, and makes that different path just a little easier to find next time.