This question was posed by the famous Buddhist teacher, doctor, scientist Jon Kabbat Zinn during a 60 minutes segment a few years back . That one question is the explanation that I offer when people ask me about mindfulness. This question sums up the whole point of mindfulness and is the easiest way to normalize a concept that seems alien and foreign to many people. It also helps better explain to people where their stress, anxiety and panic attacks may be coming from. It is a relatively innocent question that gets you to gain greater awareness of what’s going on in your head.
Think about that question seriously. When you’re in the shower, are you lathering up and washing your body and feeling how wonderful the warm water feels against your skin or do you think about something that happened when you were 8 years old, what your boss said to you last week, thinking about what’s for dinner, thinking about that bill you have to pay, making an appointment for the dentist, figuring out how you’re going to pay for that service? The fact of the matter is that we have a lot going on in our lives but we add more to our already busy lives with thoughts. We are doing a lot and carrying the burden more and more for the success of ourselves and our families. We want to have it all, we want it to look perfect and we don’t want to let other people down. We judge others and we don’t want to be judged or perceived as failures, lest anyone judge us and something bad happens. All of this is creating a problem. While all of this running around is taking place, we are asking our brains to not only get us from point A to point B, but we are adding values, judgments and feelings to those events.
It has been estimated that our brains think about 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day. On the low end that is 2,500 thoughts an hour, 42 thoughts a minute. On the high end that is over 3,300 thoughts an hour, 55 thoughts a minute. And those figures include the 8 hours we should be sleeping. Can you imagine? And if we were to break down those thoughts, are they more negative then positive? Are you beating yourself up, complaining about you or someone else, thinking about the past and worrying about the future? And when you focus on the negative how do you think your body responds? Most likely with a racing heart, fear, and headaches. And we incorporate medication to physically get our bodies to get in line because we have all this multi-tasking to do. It is a vicious circle. Our brains never shut off (which is a good thing because we need it to tell our heart to keep beating and lungs breathing), but we often don’t take the time to really look at what’s going on in there. Our minds can be like that junk drawer where you kind of don’t know what’s in there and you feel too overwhelmed to tackle it so you leave it unattended to. This is not a good way to be treating our brains, our bodies and frankly our spirits.
We often do a lot of “mindless” things to help us relax but in fact we are asking our brains to do something with all of this “mindless” stuff. You innocently scroll through your social media feed and start to feel bad about your life. You have the news in the background while you make dinner, but later you find yourself getting angry or dejected. You listen to a podcast while you fold laundry and you start scribbling on your to do list. Much of this we argue is harmless and I would agree if we were consciously aware about what this meant. The fact of the matter is, when you present your brain with information, you are asking it to do something with it. It must categorize what is being presented to it and often it comes with an accompanying feeling and thought. To watch the Instagram page of the “it” girl, your brain says, what do you want me to do with this? Is it good? Is it bad? And if you have pre-existing underlying beliefs about the information, your brain will place it into the category that is often the default (positive or negative, glass half empty of half full). For example, you follow the IT girl and she has the great boyfriend and is somewhere in the Bahamas vacationing in her second home. That is information. Our brains then create a feeling, and subsequent thoughts. Do you get jealous? Are you happy for her? Are you inspired to travel? Do you feel bad because you don’t have her body? Does her life inspire you to pick up an extra shift at work to pay for a vacation? Do you feel bad because you’re single? Do you relate to her life? With information, we create judgment. And from where I sit, it seems that we are taking in a lot of information and it is making us miserable. And while we recognize that some of these things are making us miserable we cannot stop feeding our brains more of the bad stuff.
Well, I have the answer…enter a mindfulness meditation practice. I describe meditation as allowing yourself to take a breather from taking in information and actually asking you to sit with all of the thoughts AND feelings that come up. This is REALLY HARD for people, because they don’t like to sit with their thoughts or their feelings. We often realize that we have dark and scary thoughts and to invite yourself to look at those things is hard, because we are often afraid of what that means. It doesn’t have to mean anything…it just means that the thoughts are there, taking up brain space, creating stress and anxiety and depression. I find in my private practice with clients that the biggest driver of anxiety is often fear. Fear of looking less than perfect, fear of looking stupid, fear of something bad happening, fear of loss, fear of being rejected or left out, the list could go on and on. One activity that I often engage clients in is the “What If” activity. I ask them to play out their fears and identify how their worst fears playing out would look like and how they would react. We fear our fears because we ultimately do not believe in our ability to navigate the bad things that could happen and we work really hard to prevent bad things from happening.
I will freely admit that these thoughts show up for me too and at times I get overwhelmed and sad and fearful. It’s not about fixing the problem but recognizing that my brain is being hijacked by information that is not helpful. There is something refreshing about acknowledging that I am jealous or scared or angry and figuring out the root of that jealousy, fear or anger. Watching the news makes me angry. Seeing all of the suffering in the world makes me upset. I feel compelled to watch it because I need to know what is going on out there. That is the superficial answer but if I really dig deep, I have to ask myself how watching news about a murderer in Utah helps me. “Am I going to receive any information or tools to prevent from me getting murdered because I watched that segment?” Or is it going to reinforce fear, distrust of the world and more worry. Is watching the Kardashians on TV or wherever they exist on social media going to make me feel good about my life or will I feel bad and focus on delighting in their suffering when someone’s relationship falls apart. The point is, when you sit with your feelings and your thoughts, you realize “My god…my brain does a lot of thinking…we have a lot going on and it’s making us miserable!” And as you realize that there is much going on up there, you can then ask yourself “is there anything I can do about this?” Maybe it means you just acknowledge that you’re scared. Maybe you realize that you have to stop inundating your mind with all this scary stuff, maybe you need to talk to someone”. By allowing yourself to be more present with your thoughts, you are better able to challenge them, respond instead of react and reframe what is going on with you. In the power of challenging these thoughts through mindfulness, we become better able to defuse anxiety and fear. And then you can go about enjoying that shower and all that life has to offer.
*Side Note: Daily practice is the prescription. Engaging in a mindfulness practice is not something you do for two or three days, feel better and get back to social media scrolling and multi-tasking. Mindfulness is a practice you have to engage in consistently and over time in order to see the lasting effects. An athlete doesn’t become a top tier athlete and stops going to practice or warm ups. You don’t stop exercising because you’ve reached your goal weight. You engage in the practice daily, whether for 10 minutes or 30 minutes and some days are better than others but the idea is to keep your anxiety and stress in check, which is often present throughout our lives. There are various types of meditation practice so try a variety out in order to determine what is sustainable for the long haul.