Our thoughts get yanked in a thousand directions, sparking emotions of fear, regret and sadness. We want to enjoy the present, but the river of destruction keeps flooding over the protecting banks and destroys our intentions. We can’t fight these formidable forces with sheer willpower. Eventually, strength slackens, and the persistent thoughts win.
"Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863
The white bear problem and mere common sense reminds us that “not thinking about something” simply doesn’t work. The more we try not to think about that white bear the more it dances in the center ring of our mind. We can try distraction, purposely entertaining preferable thoughts to provide momentary relief; but this solution is limited. Our minds can’t continuously devote this level of energy to thinking. Thoughts prefer to roam free in the open fields of reflections; forced thinking eventually tires and worrisome futures and bothersome pasts return to haunt the present.
The more we try not to think about that white bear the more it dances in the center ring of our mind.
The eastern practice of non-action may be helpful. Non-action doesn’t refer to a lazy evening binge watching reruns for the umpteenth time or a drunken escape from reality. Non-action referring to a response of no-response to the urgings arising in the mind, creating a new relationship with thoughts.
Honestly, we take our thoughts too seriously. We treat them as problems that must be solved—now. Each solitary consideration that pierces consciousness doesn’t carry timeless wisdom—most don’t. Our lives will not collapse into a heap of sorrows and regrets if they are ignored with non-action. Most of us are savvy enough to mend mistakes and navigate problems as they arise. We are pretty darn smart. Our ability to recognize possible problems and consider mistakes reveal a cognitive system that is working just fine. Yet, when the wandering mind takes over, with too much power, the present is strained with worry and regret.
We can smile at these mind demons without jumping to action. We can enjoy their biological presence without missing the surrounding beauties.
The non-action mindset greets thoughts with warmness, acknowledging their presence, curiously feeling the intriguing movements. By giving non-judgmental kindness to internal movements of the body and mind, we open up space. The release of this tension may invite more creative solutions, or simply allow the problem to dissolve rather than be solved. We can see clearer without the intensity of harsh ruminations, sacrificing our serenity to the cruel taskmaster of the meandering mind.
Just as other relationships take time to develop, so does building a new relationship with thoughts. We can’t expect a single practice of non-judgment to change long-standing habits. Effective mindfulness is developed over days, weeks and months. Mindfulness is a habit that to be developed—not purchased.
In the book Calming the Emotional Storms, author Sherry Dijk describes three modes of thinking: “from our emotional self, from our reasoning self, and from our wise self.” (Dijk, 2012, p. 31).
Sometimes we react emotionally without thought. Our rational mind is only invited after the fact to clean potential damage to our ego by justifying or regretting. The reasoning self is the logical brain approach—which, frankly, isn’t always logical. We dress unrecognized emotional pulls with fancy words and irrefutable reasons as we accelerate to a pitiful ending. The wise self is a blend, gathering wisdom from many sources—both internal and external—neither blocking emotion nor automatically driven by them.
By blending different inputs of wisdom, we respond to external triggers with greater expertise, minimizing the painful experiences while simultaneously inviting positive emotions to fill the newly vacated gaps in our feeling experience. Basically, we feel a little happier.
We dress unrecognized emotional pulls with fancy words and irrefutable reasons as we accelerate to a pitiful ending.
Bessel van der Kolk describes the wise mind (or mindfulness) in more detail:
“Ordinarily the executive capacities of the prefrontal cortex enable people to observe what is going on, predict what will happen if they take a certain action, and make a conscious choice. Being able to hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. . . and then take our time to respond allows the executive brain to inhibit, organize, and modulate the hardwired automatic reactions preprogrammed into the emotional brain.” (2015, location 1202)
This developing intimacy with experience—familiarity and contact with both the reasoning and emotional mind—creates a new experience that is not immediately joyful. Usually, disconnection from emotion or logic is a learned response to cope with trauma. We disconnect because it resolves something. We habitually implement dysfunctional adaptations that quickly resolve discomfort. Yet these fast-track methods fail to improve our future lives.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a meditation master, suggests that most people aren’t comfortable being with themselves. The mindful being forces us to be in our own company—something we desperately avoid. Hanh suggests using meditation to develop mindfulness, facing the discomfort and bringing the different modes of the mind together with the realities of our surrounding world. (2005).
Ellen Langer wrote in her classic book that mindfulness continual creates new categories for processing the world. Because we give attention to multiple sources of intelligence, instead of rigidly relying on strict biases, we are open to learning. “Categorizing and re-categorizing, labeling and relabeling as one masters the world. . .” (2014, location 63).
Mindfulness brings us back to the present, not because our minds are no longer yanked and pulled, but because the yanking and pulling doesn’t ignite a firestorm of activity to resolve the normal wanderings of a busy mind in a busy world. With practice the present moments of peace re-emerge through the rubble of chaos, and we rediscover the peace with the soothing sounds of a life well-lived.
Please support FLS by sharing:
Dijk, S. V. (2012). Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life. New Harbinger Publications; Original edition
Hanh, T. N. (2005). Being Peace. Parallax Press; 2nd edition
Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.
Langer, E. (2014) Mindfulness, 25th anniversary edition (A Merloyd Lawrence Book). Da Capo Lifelong Books; Anniversary edition.