August 18, 2011
One of the goals of the Thoughtfulness Practice is to bring more presence into your life. By presence, I'm referring to attending to your environment, your surroundings as well as your inner state. When we focus on living in the present moment, we generally find life to be a peaceful, enjoyable, and potentially an even magical experience. One way to expand your sense of presence is by managing the amount of time your spend focusing on the past and/or future.
Too Much Past
When we spend time thinking about past event, whether we find them 'positive' or 'negative', joyful or sorrowful, extraordinary or commonplace; we spend less time focusing our attention to the present moments. Our minds, as storage and retrieval systems, are often busy pulling out old 'movies' to show us, replaying them over and over, sometimes as a means to possibly help us figure something out about the events, and at other times, for no apparent reason.
Often, time spent pondering past events proves to be anxiety-causing, as we tend to remember emotionally-charged events that have the potential to place us in a state of anxiety. Remembering and talking about anxiety-producing events (memories) from our past can serve a purpose, when used as part of a therapeutic process, for example. But when 'used' as a pastime, with no clear purpose or outcome in mind, these thoughts provide little value and can even cause us ongoing harm.
Perseverating on 'negative' events can change our perspective and even our orientation, giving us the impression that our lives are lower-quality. Focusing on those events that cause us anxiety can result in elevated levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), higher blood pressure, and cause outbreaks, rashes, and nervousness. Most of these conditions can be lessened or even avoided altogether where we to spend less time pondering the past and more time in the present.
Within the Thoughtfulness Practice, the condition wherein someone spends a large amount of time remembering past events, reviewing them verbally and non-verbally, and replaying certain anxiety-causing events over and over, we would say that the person is "using too much past." Why "using?" We use the term "using" because thoughts are produced by the mind and "used" by the self. Storing, saving, recalling, and using thoughts is always a choice made by the self. (See the article 'The Functional Mind' for more.)
Too Much Future
As with thinking about the past, thinking about the future can cause similar conditions in the person. When we think about the future, we're creating stories (fantasies), based on what we think might happen. The problem with taking our visions to heart is that virtually all of them are not true.
Our minds are constantly producing thoughts, often in the form a short 'movies' that play in our mind's eye. These movies are one of our mind's ways of trying to help us navigate life. We must always keep 'in mind' that our minds are problem-solving, highly creative tools that make us special and unique. They are also capable of producing a large amount of material in a short period of time.
When left unchecked, the mind will tend to produce hundreds if not thousands of possible outcomes for the future. It will show us these as a way to help us be prepared for those times, if and when they come. The mis-managed mind will continue to produce and play thoughts over and over again, sometimes causing the 'users' the same types of anxiety as do thoughts about the past.
Thinking about future events in detail, whether it be a conversation with someone else, giving a presentation, tackling a job or task, or doing any number of other things, can be helpful in certain situations. Considering options is a good way to prepare and be ready. Using the mind to develop a plan or procedure can be time well spent and result in productivity. Allowing the mind to run free in your head, showing any and all 'movies' it chooses, whether based on facts or fiction, whether they cause you joy or anxiety, can result in the same types of problems as using too much past. When someone spends a large amount of their time focused on the future, worrying about what will happen, considering all types of undesirable outcomes, we say that they are 'using too much future.'
The Thoughtfulness Practice teaches us that one way to increase our time in the present, is to reduce our time spent thinking in terms of the past and future.
A Thoughtfulness Practice:
- When you find yourself thinking about the past, consider the quality of the thoughts. Become an observer of your own thinking process and ask yourself: "What is the purpose of using this thought right now?", "What is the feeling attached to this thought or 'movie?'", "Have I considered this thought already? If so, is there any point to repeating it?".
If you find that your current thoughts are about something over which you have no control, consider making a mental or physical note and return to attending to your present surroundings.
If you find that the thought has an emotional charge to it, invite that emotion to 'speak more fully' within your body, rather than pushing it away. Try to find out what the emotion wants to 'say' to you. What is the message? If there is no message, feel the feeling as much as you can. Often this will allow it to dissipate or lessen.
If you have had the thought before, know that your mind is repeating thoughts in an attempt to be productive and helpful, but that you needn't spend additional time reviewing thoughts that you have already considered. Lessen repeating thoughts by focusing your attention in the present, feeling your body from within and attending to all that your sense bring to you from your current surroundings.
When we lose touch with the present, our minds tend to anchor in the past or future. Becoming aware of time spend in the past or future is one of the first steps in developing your Thoughtfulness Practice. You may find yourself in the past or future. Return to the present by acknowledging that your mind is simply trying to help, to figure things out, but that what you need most is simply to be present. Be grateful that you have a creative mind, but manage your thoughts in a responsible way, using only those thoughts that are purposeful, productive, and valid in relationship to your life as it is in the moment.
What do you think about this article?
What points speak to you the most?
Share your thoughts below.
August 9, 2011
In a recent post, The Functional Mind, I identified the three main roles of the mind; to identify, make associations, and store and retrieve information. This article more closely examines the process of making associations.
It is through the process of associating that some of our greatest human acheivments have been made. As I've mentioned, it is our ability to quickly make myriad associations between items and ideas that makes us uniqly human. It's what sets us apart from other animals; allows us to develop complex ideas, forms, and items; and it's also the process that often result in increases in anxiety. It's the last point that is a concern in the Practice of Thoughtfulness.
As we learn and grow, we come to recognize many things. We categorize those things and often think in terms of groupings, i.e., people, places, politics, etc.. Give someone a single topic and they can probably talk for hours about it, linking one thing to another and traveling down myriad paths as they are re-minded of more and more things through the process of association.
It's when the process of association happens without an awareness to our current needs, that it can cause anxiety.
When we make non-funcitonal associations, we risk causing ourselves anxiety due to regret and worry (feelings of disappointment about the past or fear about the future). Consider that when listening to someone telling you about something that is happening with them, you might be reminded of something that happened to you. You might then be moved to interject and start talking about it, telling the other person about it, sometimes as a way to show that you can relate and that you have empathy for them.
If the stories that we share are of a 'positive' nature, there's usually no harm in being re-minded of them and re-minding others, but when they could cause us anxiety (reminding yourself and others of 'negative things' beyond your control), choosing to think about them becomes a non-purposeful activity and can even cause emotional and ultimately, physical harm to yourself and others.
An example of non-purposeful (and potentially harmful) associating, might look like this:
You receive a utility bill in the mail. You open it and look at the amount. You think about having to spend that money on something that you barely noticed using and you feel taken off guard by this 'sudden' expense. You lay the bill out on your desk and are reminded of all the other utility bills that you have received in the past. You go to your filing cabinet and get out all your old bills, laying them out on y our desk until it's covered. You look at all those bills and think about all the money you've spent and how you could have used that money for others things that you enjoy. You figure out the total amount and feel a sense of dread as you consider how much you will spend in the future. It all seems so overwhelming. You feel anxious. You heart starts to pound in your chest and you feel flush. You can't see a way out from under this burden.
What happend here?
Rather than taking the bill for what it is: an isolated expense for services rendered, you made an association between it and similar bills from the past. You thought about them all at once and envisioned all future bills as one item. You created a mountain of anguish just through the act of association.
Is it reasonable to go to your desk and bring out all your past bills when you receive a new one? Of course not. Why would you do that? But - Many of us do this with our thoughts. When we receive a story or thought about a particular idea or event, we go into the files of our mind and pull out everything that we can associate with that item, even if it will cause us anxiety! We drag up old files (memories) and lay them out in front of us (in our mind). We think about them as a group, rather than individually. We create a mountain of anxiety out of virtually unrelated items. This is unconscious association or what we call the state of being Over Associated.
Rather than over associating, consider the following as an alternative to the above:
You check your mail and find a utility bill, like you do every month. You don't particularly enjoy having bills, but you know that they represent an exchange of energy between parties. As you pay the bill, you think about how wonderful it is to have water and power to use whenever you need it. You appreciate all the work that everyone at the utility company does to make sure that you have what you need. You remember how easy it made your life to have that water and power - as opposed to not having it. When you consider how much you did with those utilities, the amount you're paying seems small in comparison.
In the second scenario, you never associated your bill with other bills. Instead, you thought about all the good things that you did with the services you received as a result of your relationship with the utility company. Rather than feeling punished, you felt like you got a great deal. You changed your perspective from being 'anxiety-oriented' to being 'gratitude-oriented.' Nothing about the situation of receiving a bill changed–only your perspective.
Remaining neutral, objective, and not over associating items or ideas is at the core of the Thoughtfulness Practice. When we take each event in our lives just as it is, without making a lot of unnecessary and non-functional associations, we spend more time in the here-and-now, and we have the opportunity to express gratitude for the many gifts we receive each and every day.
The next time you're talking with someone, when you find yourself re-minded of something outside of the topic of the conversation (something that your mind associated with in the conversation), rather than focusing on it, simply observe your mind's activity. Take note and stay focused on what the other person is saying to you. Rather than jumping to your own version of their story, ask them more questions about theirs. This will increase your conversational skills and shows true empathy and a desire to know what is being shared with you.
When you find yourself over associating (thinking about many things that are associated with something, without knowing why), simply take note and observe it as a process of the mind. Observe the way your mind jumps from one subject to another and stay attentive to what is happening in the moment, rather than thinking about the past or future. If your thoughts are causing you anxiety, identify that feeling in your body and invite it to expand into your understanding, rather than pushing it away.
When you are reminded of something that you would like to change, either take action in the moment or - if it's not the right time for action, simply observe that you thought of it and return to the present. You can make a note to yourself to take care of it when you have time and are in a position to do something about it. Until then, remain in the present moment to create more Quality Life Time (QLT). Quality Life Time is created when we reduce the amount of past and future in our 'beingness' and focus our energy and attention on the present. Living in the present is the most effective way to reduce stress, anxiety and fully appreciate all that life has to offer - and it's the only place that life happens.
The awareness and feeling of being alive is one of the greatest gifts we can enjoy. It doesn't take any special training, money, or tools, and everyone can enjoy it where they are - right now.
What do you think? Share your comments below.
August 7, 2011
Remember the feeling of excitement when you experience something for the first time? It might be receiving a gift, going to a place you've never been, or meeting someone new. The state of experiencing 'newness' often sparks our interest and boosts our energy level as we explore and find our way.
The energy we feel when discovering something 'new' is largely a result of being in a state of 'flow,' an in-the-moment awareness that places us 'at the edge' of time. When we are in-the moment, we're not thinking about the past or future and we can take in everything that life offers up as it happens.
Remember the first time you road a bicycle, drove a car, or flew in an airplane? Can you imagine having that feeling again when doing those things? if not, why not? Why do we sometimes find things that once excited us, not as fulfilling? If we're experiencing the same thing, why do we not feel as interested or excited about it?
As humans, we're always looking for something new and novel. Our minds enjoy a mystery, a puzzle, and a problem to solve. We love to figure things out and explore what's new. When we become familiar with something, we tend to 'check it off' in out mind as 'been there done that.' This thinking is at the core of boredom. Boredom is the state of not seeing the amazing world that is right in front of you, largely because you think you already know everything there is to know about it. How odd, given that each day, each moment is new.
If you're bored with the world, chances are the feeling is mutual.
Through repeated exposure to things or ideas, we can become numb to them. We see the same things passing through our awareness and sooner or later, we stop noticing them. We become numb to the reality around us and search for things that are 'new' and 'different.' We ride bicycles, drive our cars, fly in planes, and not only are we often not excited about it, we find things to complain about. "the brakes squeak," "the oil needs changing," "the flight is delayed." When did riding a bicycle, driving a car, and riding in a plane become work? – when you stopped appreciating how amazing it is to have those opportunities.
We take so many things for granted, and sometimes the more we get, the less we appreciate it. We turn a faucet and clean, drinkable water comes out - even hot water. We flick on a switch and light fills the room. We turn a knob and the temperature of the air changes to make us more comfortable. We dial some numbers into a palm-sized device and in a moment, we're talking to someone half-way around the world. Do we show amazement for these miracles each time we experience them? Most people don't, but we certainly are upset when they don't happen!
Think gas prices are high? Want to get more for your money? Here's what you can do: The next time you get in your car to drive, notice how amazing it is that you can actually get into a little box on wheels, press a button, turn some knobs and flick some switches, and find yourself propelled (powerfully) down the road. Remember the feeling of the first time you drove. Renew your appreciation for the current moment in which you are gifted with the opportunity to do it again and again. The driving doesn't change, only your perception of what it means.
By really appreciating the opportunities in your life, you gain fulfillment of that life.
It doesn't matter how many 'new' or 'valuable' things you chase down or capture. Someone can fill a room in their house with money and after the novelty has worn off, after they have taken their tenth 'money bath,' after they have shown all their friends, after they have looked through the door a hundred times, sooner or later it will just be a room full of clutter. It's the not the 'having' that brings fulfillment, but the 'playing of the game.'
Let things pass through your hands, rather than holding on to them. Feel the joy in each moment as life presents you with opportunities and experiences. Appreciate doing everything you do, even if you've done it for years. Experience each time like the first time. It is!
The next time you use an appliance or tool, take time to appreciate the person who designed it, the person who built it, and the opportunity you have to use it. As you work, imagine NOT having it and be grateful for it.
The next time you ride a bicycle, drive a car, or fly in an airplane, consider how amazing it is to have that opportunity. Think about what it would be like to NOT have it and be grateful. Think about all the people who made that experience possible and thank them in your own way. Live with gratitude for every opportunity you get and your life with be FULFILLING.
What do you relate to most about this article? Share your thoughts below or share it with a friend.
August 1, 2011
You may not realize it, but you think in stories.
The 'events' in our lives are stored in our minds (and to some degree in our bodies as well), able to be recalled and shared through what I call "storying," – the act of reciting past events and thoughts within the context of a conversation.
Maybe you know someone who often thinks and communicates through story. Maybe that someone is you! 'Storying' is quite common and often includes narrative, such as "I said..." and "then she said...,' etc.. It's a way to bring out detail, take the listener into one's world, and convey information. Where storying can become problematic with regards to Thoughtfulness, is when it is done unconsciously, without taking the listener or the context of the conversation into consideration.
What is unconscious storying?
Often, when talking to someone else, there is an exchange of ideas, thoughts, information, etc. This exchange, to be meaningful, follows a logical path from topic to topic, connected through 'bridges' of thought that span various subject matter and address the aspects of the participants.
Because of the power of the associative mind, the process of connecting one thing to another by identifying commonalities between things, ideas, or emotions, it is possible to quickly link to a story that may or may not have relevance in the present context of a conversation.
Something you can try, is to focus your attention on any item in the area where you are right now. Identify one thing, then see what your mind does. If you're like most people, you will be re-minded of at least one past event that involved an associated item. If you tell someone (or yourself) about the events that you associate with that item, you have created a story. Most of us have many stories we can tell about a particular item or idea. They often include times when we were having an emotional peak or valley (since those events tend to be imprinted on multiple levels; cognitive, physical, emotional, spiritual, etc.)
One question we can ask ourselves is: "What is the purpose of my story in this moment?"
Often times, we tell a story simply because we're reminded of it. Sometimes, we even change the subject of a conversation to tell one of our stories. Sometimes we find ourselves waiting for the other person to leave a break in their story so we can tell ours! The process that results in our telling of a particular story has to do with two at least two aspects; 1) our perspective and 2) our orientation.
Perspective is the way we view something. Is the glass half-filled or half-emptied? Orientation is the way we view most things. Is life a struggle or an adventure?
Perspective is shaped by one's knowledge, values, beliefs, and ability to become aware of the many aspects of a thing or idea.A perspective may be broad or narrow. It may be deep or shallow. And it is almost always shaped by our orientation.
Orientation is shaped by combining multiples of the same perspective. Over time, we may choose to view things a certain way. This 'way of seeing' eventually becomes our primary way of seeing, to the point where our compass shifts, "True North" actually moves, and our ability to see the world 'as it is' is all but a fantasy, although ironically, we are often confident in what we see as truth.
Thoughtfulness seeks to re-orient the individual through cognitive mindfulness practices designed to increase functional perspective. Over time, the individual regains his/her orientation with the world and finds peace where there was once conflict and confusion.
How can we become more conscious of our use of story?
Individuals can use a Thoughtfulness Practice to gain insight into their choice of story, which intern will inform positive changes. Noticing associative patterns that result in story choices is the beginning to positive change. Managing one's stories and using them in a respectful manner is one goal of Thoughtfulness.
When we become aware of the forces behind our stories, we gain the capacity to shape our perspective and ultimately, our orientation. When we orient ourselves with the nature of the universe, which is love, we find ourselves, and in that we find both peace and power.
A Thoughtfulness Practice:
When in conversation with someone, note their use of story, paying particular attention to their perspective with regards to what is important to them. Observe how this relates to their overall orientation. Note how you use story, your perspective and orientation. Ask yourself:
- Why did I choose the stories I did?
- What about each story is important to me?
- What effect did my stories have on my emotions?
- What did I learn about my perspective and orientation?
- What would I change the next time to move my orientation in a positive direction?
More about stories
The stories we repeatedly tell ourselves and others about our lives shape and inform the quality of those lives. Some of a person's stories are self-created, but many (more than you might think) are provided to the person from birth. Stories about race, gender, religion, and other traits are embedded by parents, authority figures, and society in general. In some cases, stories about one's family or culture can change one's perspective and orientation to the point where he/she is not fully connecting with people (or the world in general) in an authentic way.
Becoming aware of our inherited and 'borrowed' stories can be a vital step in achieving a state of mindfulness and inner- and outer-peace. Other practices that relate to all types of stories will be addressed in other posts. Stay tuned!