This week I discovered the concept of mindfulness.
Now like I said, I only discovered it this week so I'm not pretending to be an expert, but just in this short time I've found it ridiculously useful.
Put in it's simplest terms, Mindfulness is forcing your thoughts to be focused on the moment and nothing else.
Expanding on this a little bit - instead of letting your thoughts ruminate on the past, strain and squint into the future or scurry in circles around today's to-do list, you force them to focus on right here and right now, to the exclusion of all else.
So let's backtrack a bit and talk about how many minds you have.
"What do you mean Lloydie? How many minds? I have one, of course!"
But if you take a second to delineate between "mind" and "brain", it gets interesting.
Most of us, when we use the word "mind", use it as an overarching term to describe the sum total of our brain activity, but with emphasis on the sum total of all our thought activity. But what is a "mind"? Where does the mind start and end? And....... how come I can even have a concept of my own mind?
So now we're in murky waters, so we'll keep it high level and avoid arguing about consciousness and sentience and all of that hard stuff that I'm tired of trying to figure out. Things make a lot more sense when you use the word "mind" in a much more utilitarian way.
Whatever you do, DO NOT think about white elephants.
You just thought about white elephants didn't you? Tsk tsk tsk. OK, let's try this again.
Whatever you do, DO NOT think about white elephants playing golf.
You did it again didn't you? You probably even added a nice green playing surface, a few trees, a blue sky with some nice fluffy white clouds and a bright yellow sun, along with the white elephants holding their putters with their trunks, didn't you?
The reason you couldn't possibly not think about white elephants playing golf on a nice day is because there is a part of your brain that just chatters away, all day every day, in a constant stream of words, and never ever shuts up even for an instant.
But where this starts to make sense is that there's another part of your brain that is listening to this chatter. You saw the images, you saw the nice green grass, smelled that freshly-mown putting green smell, heard the leaves rustling as the trees gently swayed in the sweet-smelling wind, and felt the warmth of the sunshine on your face, because your inner chatterbox immediately regurgitated the suggested thought. But your inner observer observed this and filled in all the rest of the details.
This is how your brain works. It receives the jumbled cascade of your sensory input and rearranges it into familiar shapes and sensory experiences that match your memories of those same experiences prior. Your brain watches itself sensing the world and interprets it into a language that you will understand.
Too much too soon? Let's just cut to the chase.
The easiest way to make use of this in your everyday life is to understand the difference between your "Thinking Mind" and "Observing Mind". The Thinking Mind is your inner chatterbox, and your Observing Mind is the stenographer. You can actually think about your thoughts. And where this becomes something you can use is when you understand that the Thinking Mind is where your emotions lie.
Have you ever been so utterly devastated about something that you were in tears? Maybe you had just received some devastating news, or a loved one had said or done something ridiculously hurtful. You were a blubbering mess, so you decided to make yourself a comforting warm beverage. You put the kettle on the stove, then sat on the couch blubbering away, the Thinking Mind chattering away about how hurt you feel, and how devastating this is, and why did this happen to me, and this is the worst thing I've ever felt, and how can I go on after this. Then you looked over at the kettle and thought "I'd better make sure I turn that off before it boils over!". A purely un-emotional and pragmatic thought from the Observing Mind, reminding you not to burn the house down.
Before I discovered this concept I had two big problems: 1. I was completely wrapped up in my emotions, and 2. I was zoomed in on the negative. I would take the big picture of my life, scan the entire image for any negative aspect, no matter how small, then zoom in on them until they were all I could see. Then, because I was submerged in my own emotional quagmire, my entire world became these negatives and nothing was good any more. I did this with my job, my marriage, my kids, my house, even myself.
The biggest problem with this is that, when you live submerged in your emotional ocean, you suppress any negative emotion or thought, for fear it will capsize your tiny little boat and you will sink forever into the ominous depths. Then as a result of this, because these emotions and thoughts are actually you trying to tell yourself something important, and no-one tells you to shutup and go away and gets off lightly, they start shouting at you, and pounding on the door of your mind, demanding to be heard. So you fight them off even more, and they demand to be heard even more, and so on and so on until there is a screaming match going on inside your head that you can't escape from.
But when I broke it down into the Thinking Mind and the Observing Mind, I realised a few things.
1. I am not my emotions.
I feel my emotions. I have emotions. I am not a bundle of pure emotion, floating around in a multi-coloured vapour. My emotions are like a sense - my brain can't feel physical pain, but when I feel emotional pain, it means something is not connecting the way it should up there, and I should give time and space for myself to rectify it.
2. Negative emotions are good, valuable and useful.
There is a reason part of you is screaming at you and demanding to be heard. How would you feel if you were trying to tell someone something really important, and they interrupted you, told you to shutup and piss off, no-one wants to hear what you've got to say because you're an idiot? Has anyone ever spoken to you like that in your life? And if they did, how would you react? You wouldn't put up with that kind of treatment from another person, so why would you treat yourself like that? Emotions are messages. Negative emotions are just as important as positive ones. In fact, maybe more important - they are the warning signs that you need to give yourself some attention and look after yourself before you end up in a mess.
3. Letting your negative emotions be heard removes their power to consume your life.
Once you stop telling yourself to shutup and piss off, and listen to your negative emotions, you get the message and the emotion passes. Hang on, I don't feel so angry any more! Wait a second, a minute ago my life was crashing down around my ears, now I can easily see a way through the mess! Hold the phone, one minute I'm plotting to obtain an assault rifle and make that dickhead at work wish he'd called in sick, the next minute I'm laughing at how silly this all seems! By giving yourself the time and space to process the negativity, you feel heard, you feel valued and you feel like your opinion means something. Once you start taking better care of yourself emotionally, you start to feel better almost instantly.
Well this is all very wonderful Lloydie, but how do you even do all this?
The first trick is this: when you feel a negative emotion, don't associate with it by saying "I feel angry" or "I feel sad" or "I feel scared". You are not your emotions. Instead, say "I feel anger" or "I feel sadness" or "I feel fear". This way you are reinforcing the fact to yourself that you have emotions, they don't have you. I was amazed the first day I tried this. It felt silly at first, like I was an alien from some awful 60's sci-fi series, but it worked! Instead of washing over me like a tide I was going to drown in, they bubbled up and danced in front of me like little semaphore signals. I didn't rush it, but by repeating to myself "I feel anger, I feel sadness, I feel fear", eventually the cause of the anger, sadness and fear became apparent. And my Observing Mind could easily see what the problem was and why these signals were being received, and it turned out it was an easy fix after all. By not giving my Thinking Mind the pulpit I was able to identify the short-circuit, remind myself that those things were in the past, they are not happening to me now and I don't need to worry about it ever happening again. The next day I felt like a million bucks.
The second trick is this: pick a time, pick a place. Maybe sit down, maybe just stand there. But deliberately set aside time to engage all of your senses in this present moment, and this present moment alone. The feel of the chair I am sitting in. The feel of the keys of the keyboard under my fingers. The multi-coloured glow of the computer screen. The sound of the vacuum cleaner, and my little son playing his imaginary games in the other room. The fragrance of the leather of my chair and the scented candle in the kitchen. Immerse yourself only in Now. It won't be long before the Thinking Mind decides to take a break as well, your guard will come down, big problems will become little problems and a dead-end shows you the secret passage-way.
The third trick is this: think of your emotions as leaves floating on a stream in front of you, or cars driving past on the road in front of you. You are not bobbing along with the leaves, you are not driving the car. You are standing on the bank or the kerb, watching them flow past. You are not being sucked in by the undercurrent or getting mown down by a drunk driver, you are quietly standing there, observing the leaves and cars as they pass.
I could bore you with all the details of how this has changed my outlook on life, and how much better I feel even after just one week of thinking like this, but I won't. Instead, I will say that once you become "the master of your domain" and "lord of the manor", you will feel a lot better too.