Cultivate A Nourishing Relationship With Thought
Have you noticed that some people are less in their heads, and more in their bodies? They appear to be more grounded? Yeah, I’m not one of the those people. I’m a highly cognizant person- I’m thinking a lot. Before I started looking at thought, changing my relationship with thought, dialoguing with thought, and developing a more nourishing dynamic with thought….I was incredibly anxious. I would be thinking about thinking. In part due to this tendency I developed social anxiety from a young age. It felt like I was in a cage- and the worst part of the cage was that I was in there with myself! Thinking.
What I’ve come to know is that I developed a very dysfunctional relationship with thought. And I could change this relationship with a bit of practice and patience. In fact, thought can nourish me, and I could turn down the volume of thought when it didn’t serve me. The cage door---the whole time that I was in the cage---was unlocked. I just had to open it and walk out. Such relief. And I want this relief from thought for you.
Let me back for a moment and briefly mention a bit of background on the thinking mind.
For our purposes, there are two aspects to the mind- the thinking and the observing parts. Most of us live from the thinking part most of the time. We even think that the thinking part of ourselves is us. Our essence. But we are more than thought. Much more. By of the end of this episode, I hope to convince you to develop the observing part of your mind- turn up the volume on this part, and try to spend more and more time there. Thoughts are typically referred to as being helpful, neutral, or unhelpful. I try not to judge or label thoughts into these categories anymore, because, as I will shortly explain, the mind doesn’t differentiate between these- the mind is always trying to be helpful with the information that it is presenting. We are greatly challenged by the icky, heavy, dark, painful thoughts, but the mind is wanting to warn us, support us, remind us, and keep us safe. We can form a relationship with those thoughts too so that we are not thrown by them to a great degree. We can allow them to be there, breathe past them, and comfort self in the process. Turn the volume down. Diffuse the urgency.
I encourage clients to maintain a kind of relationship with the mind that might be different from the relationship they currently have with it. Most of us, and by no fault of our own, we’re not taught this stuff generally by parents or educators or we’re simply not developmentally able to understand, most of us allow the mind to be a significant influence- and especially the thinking part of the mind-which we have blown way out of proportion. Instead, we can assume a nourishing relationship with the mind that is more observing or witnessing. In this observing or presence place, we are simply being. It is a place of rest. Of non-judgement. It’s feels open. We feel OK. Things just are.
We are vessels for the mind’s wanderings and instead of grabbing onto every little or big thought, we can instead allow the mind to present us with all kinds of things, and we can simply notice and allow those wanderings. This is the observing, mindful, and nourishing place that I keep talking about.
Let’s pause for a slight segment about the roots of thought from an Evolutionary perspective. Thought is an adaptive function. Early ancestors developed their thinking minds to remind them of things, or to rely important information. Most often, this was in the form of warning about danger. For example, our early ancestors learnt that tigers were dangerous to them. The mind reminded them of this to keep them alive. Over time, this adaptive function became stronger and stronger and more and more sensitive, since we continued to pay it heed. Now someone can give us a dirty look and the mind can go wild, or worse, we can be ghosted, or someone doesn’t return a text…..These are generally the issues that we deal with in life. So the mind is VERY good at reminding us of stressful things, creating stories of meaning, being on high alert, searching for cues in the environment, ruminating……It’s a bit much.
But we can change it! We can build the observer/mindful muscle. I do it and continue to do it.
Now you’re probably wondering, OK Janine, that’s fine, but how the heck do I develop this more nourishing relationship with thought? Great question, and there is a gap here, and it does take time to start to practice more easily.
My first recommendation is to develop a kind of dialogue or running commentary with the mind. When BIG difficult thoughts show up, can you tell your mind (and your heart for that matter) that, hey you know, you know, and that these are challenging thoughts, and that you’ll get through this. That you’re here for you. You are here for you.
My second tip is to drop the struggle. This is key. The trick is to do your best to breathe past them, notice them, allow them to be there, invite them in, even. And if they keep coming up, keep breathing past, keep allowing. Big difficult thoughts will require more than a breath and a cup of herbal tea to move through. It’s about really being present, surrendering, and allowing.
Another tip is thought checking. Thought checking helped me to learn that thought is often untrue or biased, or is telling me stories. If your friend doesn’t text you back, and you wonder why, then why not mention it- I was expecting a reply to my text, is everything ok? Now we’re finding out rather then wondering and worrying. Check your thoughts. This is an immensely helpful tool, and it helps us to learn, grow, and understand ourselves, others and the world around us better.
My last tip- and don’t be fooled by it, it’s a significant tip- be kind to yourself- when major life events occur, like a pandemic, and all the associated concerns, our thoughts may get louder because we are actually communicating to our mind that we’re in fear. And that it is high alert time.
Now for some trouble shooting- People will say to me, Janine I did breathe, it didn’t work. Or, I did breathe and the thought was still there or it came back. Be aware that the ego mind (generally that aspect of your worldview that the mind wants to maintain) wants to maintain it’s strangle hold on you. It wants to maintain it’s current form. Therefore, when you start breaking from the former relationship with the mind, there will be a bit of a resistance- your mind will try to tempt you with those thoughts, stories and patterns again, and you might feel like it’s no use, that you’ll never get better, that your mind and thought are too powerful. You think, maybe all my difficult thoughts are true and I should give up. I know that readers can relate to this.
Back to the evolutionary perspective of the thinking minds’ development, we can understand this. The ego mind wants to maintain it’s views for survival purposes. Back to the tiger in the woods- you’ve seen it attack other folks from your tribe, they’ve passed down stories of the dangers of tigers, right..tigers are bad for you, and this perspective aids in your survival. What if it was EASY to shift your mindset and suddenly assume that tigers are kinds cute, and you want to go up to it and pet it and cuddle and take it home as a pet, and everything will be fine. No No No No No. The mind will fight you on this- and even painfully so- to keep you safe. The mind will flash you visuals, memories, you’ll experience fear, the mind will do everything it can to stop you for changing your worldview on tigers. Thus, The ego mind has adapted this way.
The mind simply wants to remind us of big fears and challenges not to drive us crazy, or because it is the enemy, but actually because it is trying to warn you of danger. It also makes it very clear to us when we have something to look at or work through. When I realized this, and in a way befriended my mind- everything changed. Everything changed. The light bulb switched on and I knew that I could determine what thoughts to hold close, what thoughts to breathe past. I knew that the mind just wants to help me, and this made it easier to change. Self care helps to calm heavy dark and challenging thoughts.
I assume a strong Mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach. Sometimes people ask me, should I ever pay attention to thought? Well yes. If you're getting on your bicycle in the morning, yet have the thought that you think you left the stove on, that thought is useful and worth investigating. But if you’re sure you checked it, and checked it again before you left, then that is not a useful thought, it’s a nagging, unhelpful thought. If you have the thought, call your friend, listen to that. If your mind does something else, and comes down on you for not calling your friend sooner, that’s not a useful thought. It’s a punishing, violent thought towards self (and self talk will be a whole other blog).
I truly hope that this was helpful- I’ll do more posts on thought, because it really is a big topic. Give this approach a try. You have everything to gain.
Take care and be well all.