This post is the second in a series of posts I’m calling “Tools in Your Pocket,” the powerful (and often overlooked) tools we all can leverage to create more of whatever we’re after in our lives.
This next tool in the series is perhaps the most useful and versatile one of all – our thoughts — because everything else in our consciousness flows from there. Thought work, the practice of awareness, inquiry, and calibration of our thoughts, is perhaps the single most potent way to change our experience of the world and what we can create within it.
Remember our need to control things? Our own thoughts are the most effective place to apply that energy.
To begin, simply notice that your thoughts are separate from, and therefore not 1) who you are, or 2) reality. Thoughts are sentences in the brain. These sentences in our brain create our emotions, moods, our lived experience. Our brain constructs tens of thousands of these sentences each day – they enter our stream of thinking rapidly and surreptitiously throughout our waking hours. Our direct, concrete observations of what we experience with our senses (“It’s sunny outside”) are interspersed with assumptions, opinions, judgments and predictions about ourselves and other people. We call all of this “reality,” when in fact it’s more of a virtual reality – a story our brain is writing in real time.
If our entire experience of the world, our emotions, and our behavior stem from these sentences in our brain, it’s worthwhile to consider some of the default settings of the brain that created them.
1. The human brain evolved to protect us from physical danger. Its primary job is to detect threats in our environment and keep us safe from them. Over time, it has developed a negativity bias: The brain attends to negative information more readily and is more likely to store it, learn from it, and think about it repeatedly.
2. Another evolutionary adaptation of the brain is efficiency, ensuring our basic survival needs are met while saving energy for emergencies. To do this, the brain has developed a kind of “low battery mode” setting wherein it uses habitual thinking to oversimplify information, generalize complexity, and recycle previously used thoughts, over and over.
3. The human brain is also a pattern-recognition machine, and it loves to organize information into patterns and stories. It connects dots of information into a narrative structure to better remember and understand them—this becomes a story. Once that structure is established – the initial storyline – our brain selectively scans for evidence to support it and filters out information that doesn’t fit.
This beautiful machine between your ears, just doing its best to protect you, is writing a story for you, about you. The story it constructs has more of an effect on your emotions, your mood, and your life than any external event or circumstance.
This beautiful machine needs you at its control panel.
Left to its own devices, your brain will offer you a downer of a story, often a nail-biter too — with darkness lurking around every corner. It will be rife with assumptions, predictions, mind-reading, black-and-white oversimplifications, catastrophizing. The plot points are often well worn: based on old, outdated programming. This narration is not what we want to put in charge of how we feel. It often perpetuates the opposite of what we’re trying to create, whether it’s a goal we’re going after or what so many of my clients say they want most: more internal peace.
How do you liberate yourself from your thoughts? It starts with perspective. Step back from the stream of sentences in your brain before reacting to them. Step onto the safety of the riverbank and let the stream flow by. Become the observer, watching the parade of thoughts your brain offers. From the edge of the riverbank, you can catch, examine, and release your thoughts. Decide what to keep and what to let go.
Select one thought that seems to have particular import. You will know it’s a potent thought when you feel the rush of emotion it creates. Ask yourself: Do I know without a doubt this is true? How is this thought serving me? What emotion is created when I think it? What story am I telling myself? Is this thought really just a habit?
While we can’t get out ahead of all the thousands of thoughts we think each day, we can begin to observe them differently. Observing takes us out of reactivity. Observing takes us out of the fray, into the eye of the storm: our own mind. Observing allows us a window into how we create our own emotions and experience, and how we can make change — from the inside out.
If you find these tools helpful, please share with friends, family, colleagues — anyone who could use them!