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  • Fairlie Winship

Flexing your mind muscle

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by a churning sea of thoughts, it can distract us from what we are doing, keep us awake at night, or stop us from connecting with loved ones. It can feel unending as our mind gets stuck on a thought and we just cant stop it or let it go, however hard we try; it is as though the thought has taken control and we are at its mercy. This week Id like to share a way of viewing the mind along with a simple technique that helps to distance from those thoughts and not be overwhelmed by them. It may seem like a bit of a riddle, but please stay with me for a moment!

A well known Buddhist nun I once met used the analogy of a torch to illustrate this idea, saying ‘our mind is like a torch, and when the torch shines on an object, that object is all that we see; this is the thinking mind, swept up by the object of your focus’. She went on to ask ‘but who is holding the torch?’

I like to look at it in terms of the ‘Thinking mind’ and the ‘Observing mind’: there is the object of attention (ie what the light is shining on), the light itself which is the Thinking mind, and the holder of the torch, or the Observing mind. Only when we become aware of the light of our attention can we take a more active role in choosing where we wish to shine it, and how we wish to use it.

Central to this is the truth that YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS! In other words, who I am and the thoughts that I have are not the same thing (at some level we all know this, but its all too easy to be swept up by those thoughts and forget this truth). As you read this, notice that your THINKING mind is doing the reading and understanding, but somewhere else inside you, perhaps further back is your OBSERVER mind. To some this Observer self might feel like your true Self, or somehow deeper than the Thinker. You could play with this idea a bit in order to get a better grasp of it. The next thought you have, try to locate where the thinking takes place, and then consider where the knowing is? Likely the knowing is more body wide, or feels somehow further back and the thought is quite clearly located in the brain. This may be a strange concept for some, and could make total sense to others. We are all different. Assuming you are sitting as you read this, think about standing up. Did you see that thought about standing up? Who did the seeing or noticing of that thought?

OK, so this can get complicated and confusing. The point is that you are the observer, and the thinking is a thing that happens. Thinking is not YOU. So it makes sense then that your thoughts do not get to call the shots.You can take charge. But how do you do that? Any activity that promotes self awareness, certainly meditation creates the opportunity, but there are specific techniques you can try too. One such technique comes from ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) and goes as follows:

1.notice the thought

Eg. The sky is going to fall in if I don’t …

…and notice how big it is (you could rate it out of 10 for how overwhelming or intrusive it is): Eg. That is really taking up all of my headspace right now, I’m almost overwhelmed by it and I cant really think of anything else; I’ll rate it 8 out of 10

2.Say to yourself ‘I am noticing that I am having a thought’

Eg. I am noticing that I am thinking ‘the sky is going to fall in if I don’t….’

3.Then say ‘I am noticing my brain is having that thought’

Eg. Say to yourself ‘My brain is noticing that I am thinking ‘the sky is going to fall in if I don’t….’

4.Then notice who is having this dialogue: yes, you are in Observer Self!

This is a really helpful technique to work with overwhelming thoughts, and helps to develop the self awareness or presence of mind needed to self regulate. I hope you find it useful!

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