On Thinking and Well-Being

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that it is the nature of our minds to do a lot of thinking. But how many of us stop to think about our thinking habits themselves, and the effects of these habits (including our habitual interpretations, judgments and assumptions) on our health and happiness? Yet our automatic thinking habits, like other habits (how we eat, drink, breathe and move) have a huge effect on creating and maintaining how well —or unwell— we feel.

131 Thinking, at Ping Sien Si, Pasir Panjang, Perak, Malaysia
Ping Sien Si Temple, Perak, Malaysia

First, a little about the brain. Our brains include both “control” and “automatic” processes. “Control” processes are used to learn new skills. They require our focused, conscious attention and effort—think of the effort and concentration it took for you to learn to read or to drive. But through repetition, a new skill (or any regular behavior) becomes an “automatic” process: that is, it becomes a habit.

And it’s a good thing our brains can put so many behaviors “on automatic,” because this frees our energy, concentration and focus for things that actually require it. But as all of us have experienced, there are both beneficial and destructive habits that take hold when the conscious mind turns its attention elsewhere.

The same is true of our thoughts. Since “thinking” itself is a behavior, our thoughts are as subject as any other behavior to going “on automatic,” and they do. We acquire many “thought habits” in the course of our lives: characteristic ways thinking about ourselves and the world, some of which were passed on to us by our early caregivers, and some of which we developed on our own as ways to explain events and emotions, or otherwise to cope. As with other habits, many of these thought habits are beneficial. But many others are like shoes that once fit our small feet, but were never replaced when our feet outgrew them. Now, because they are “too small,”  they cause pain, injury, and stunt our growth.

While the list of common, injurious thoughts is long, psychologists who specialize in the effects of thinking habits on our mood states and happiness have identified what’s been called the “Big Four” types (visit www.cognitivetherapyguide.org for the longer list). These include:

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. Example: “I have to do things perfectly, because anything less than perfect is a failure.”

2. Negative Philosophizing. Example: “Life is just one disappointment after another.”

3. Negative Self-Labeling. Examples: “I’m a failure.”  “If people knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me.”

4. Catastrophizing. Example: “Whatever’s around the corner is probably going to be bad!”

And though it may seem to make sense (and is sometimes recommended) to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, the danger is that we will just exchange one kind of distortion and judgement for another, which is what always happens when we decide “how things always are.”  Eventually, that “positive spin” will turn out to not be “always true” either…which may just seem to prove that we were “right” in our old thinking.

A more useful and effective practice is to begin to identify your own automatic thoughts (or as they’re also called, “self-talk”) as you move through your day. Specifically, when you feel anxious or angry, ask yourself, “what are my thoughts as I experience this feeling?” Some people find it useful to actually start a written list, simply noting the automatic thoughts that come to mind in a given situation.

And because many of us mis-label “thoughts” as “feelings,” it can be helpful to become familiar with the difference. “Sad,” “angry,” “anxious,” “tired,” “excited” “disappointed,” “longing,” are all feelings; pretty much everything else (explanations, judgements, or other attitudes connected with the feeling) are actually thoughts. “I feel like a failure,” for instance, is actually a self-blaming “thought” (“I must have done something wrong”) used to explain the feeling of “disappointment.”

Once you begin to become aware of your thoughts by taking them off “automatic” and putting them back on “manual” for awhile, you can start to consider other, less negative ways of talking to yourself. Instead of “I feel like a failure” or “I screwed up again,” for instance, how about trying the neutral thought, “Well, that didn’t go the way I’d hoped!” and leave it at that. This acknowledges the feeling, but skips the part where you or someone else gets blamed. 

But as I’ve written in this column before, don’t take my word for it: try it, and see if you like the results. As they say in AA (I know, I’ve quoted this before, but I love it): “You have nothing to lose but your misery!”

Mindfulness Practice in Everyday Life: Part 2

Chances are, you already experience mindfulness as part of your life in some way. For anyone who fly-fishes, bicycles, rock-climbs, or practices any activity require intense concentration and focus, mindfulness is a major aspect of the experience itself. Running a tricky rapid successfully, or making a skillful cast are only possible when our minds and bodies are fully alert, attentive and engaged in the moment, and not “elsewhere.”

But when the circumstances do not demand it, many of spend much of our lives living everywhere but here, now.

So here, now, is a little sampler of ways to incorporate mindfulness into the fabric and activities of daily life. Experiment with one or more of them on a regular basis, and see what the results are. If you like the results, you may want to learn and do more, such as adding a regular, more formal period of mindfulness practice to your daily life, which can support your ability to make a habit of mindfulness.

  • Practice #1: Working with “Pause.”

First, in a quiet moment (now, for instance), identify a habit of reaction you have that you would like to experiment with. Examples include the habit of  expressing impatience, criticism, blame, or arguing with someone else when angry.

Next, identify sensations, thoughts and feelings that occur when you are “triggered” in a situation, before you act. Do you feel heat? Agitation? Tightness in your neck, throat, gut? Do you notice fear? Whatever you identify (and these are sensations and feelings, not your explanation or thoughts) set a conscious  intention to notice this “inside state” the next time (and each time) it happens. Then, when it does happen (and you know it will!), instead of creating more tension by trying to suppress your feelings, do these 4 things before you speak or act:

1) Pause for the time it takes to

2) Breathe (one or two full, deep inhales and exhales) while you

3) Name (not blame, just name) the feeling inside to yourself: “I feel anger” for instance, or “I feel fear”).

Then, and only then,

4) Choose what you want to say or do.

Notice that this practice does not focus on what is the “right thing” to say or do. Instead, it assumes that when we pause even just a few seconds, which is long enough to notice what we are feeling and to let the surge of the initial reaction pass (in brain science terms, this lets the slower-firing, rational parts of of brains catch up with the instantly-activated, reactive parts of our brains). With our rational minds available to us again to guide us, whatever we do or say it is bound to be better!

  • Practice #2: Mindfulness in Prayer.

For those who practice prayer, mindfulness is an extremely important, but often forgotten, dimension of the prayer experience. Asking for help or for guidance (“prayer of petition”) is an important part of prayer, but prayer can too often involve too much talking and not much listening…or only listening for what we specifically want to hear! Since the basic position of mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose and without judgement,” mindfulness in prayer can be defined as “listening to God with full attention…and without interrupting!” See what it is like, then, to spend 5 or 10 or 15 minutes a day just sitting in non-verbal “listening prayer,” simply staying present (focusing on the breath is a good way to do this, since we can only breathe in the present moment!) and bringing the mind back when you notice it has wandered.

  • Practice #3: “Uni-tasking.”

When we are multi-tasking (paying attention to many things at once), we are actually not paying attention to anything, which leads to feeling scatterbrained, anxious, and disconnected from ourselves, other people, and the present moment.

So if it is your habit to listen to the news while doing the dishes, or looking at your phone while walking, or watching T.V. while eating a meal, see what it is like to just wash the dishes, or just eat the meal, or walk, deliberating drawing your attention to the sensory details of that experience, and that experience only (the taste of the food, the feel of the warm water, the landscape of the walk and the feel of it). This can be somewhat uncomfortable at first, since multi-tasking and distraction has become such a normal-feeling state for many of us, but you may find, with a little practice, that you feel more relaxed, connected and calm as a result. Try it and see!

For more guidance on formal and everyday mindfulness practice: 

The books and cds by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn are a great resource; his cds can be found at  http://www.mindfulnesscds.com/ .

www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/ is an excellent website for resources (information, articles and guided meditations) which focus on bringing self-compassion into mindfulness practice