“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Changing our perspective
So much of the time we operate on automatic pilot and when we do this, we’re often in our heads, lost in thought. We are immersed in our thoughts and our thoughts act as a kind of filter through which we experience our lives.
There are several reasons why this isn’t conducive to our well-being. First of all, our minds are hard-wired to look for problems – it’s part of our survival mechanism. We’re constantly on the lookout for things that need doing, changing, finishing, resolving etc. And when they can’t be fixed, finished or resolved we push ourselves harder and we remain stuck in a loop of negative worry thoughts – going over the past and how we could have done things differently or projecting into the future with ‘what if’ scenarios, creating anxiety and stress.
Secondly, this way of thinking has become habitual and automatic and we just can’t seem to stop it even if we want to. It almost seems like we are our thoughts.
Also, we believe our thoughts to be true reflections of reality. If we have a pain in our knee, we may experience thoughts such as: ‘I wonder if I’ve got arthritis’ or ‘I hope I don’t have to have an operation’ or ‘What if I fall and hurt myself when I’m out walking’. And although these are just thoughts and not reality, we still experience the dread, worry and anxiety as if they were real. And we don’t like how this makes us feel so we try to distract ourselves. We’re never going to stop our thoughts but through mindfulness practice, we can change our relationship to our thoughts and subsequently change our perspective.
During a mindfulness course we do an exercise of mindfully eating a raisin. Our thoughts may tell us that it’s ‘just a raisin’, a tiny, shrivelled thing of no consequence, and, when we’re on automatic pilot, we may well shove a handful in our mouth without really paying much attention. However, when participants deliberately bring awareness to the act of eating just one raisin, they are often surprised to discover the intensity of the taste of a raisin and that it has a smell and different textures etc. The experience seems to become richer and more vivid simply by giving it our full attention. And the same is true for so many moments in our lives which our thoughts may dismiss as ‘mundane’ or ‘ordinary’. It is a way of waking up to the actuality of our experience.
When we are experiencing difficult or challenging situations such as the pain in the knee, we may think it would be preferable not to experience things more vividly. However when we learn to be with our experience more directly, it becomes easier to notice that the fear and worry thoughts are simply ‘fear and worry thoughts’ and perhaps also to notice that there are periods when the pain isn’t there or that the challenging situation has different aspects that we hadn’t seen before. When we become more present instead of anxious or distracted, we’re able to see the whole picture more clearly and can then take whatever action might be appropriate. We no longer are our thoughts but we have shifted our relationship to them as we see them as just thoughts, or ‘mental events’. Learning to do this is an act of kindness and it means we are able to take better care of ourselves.