If you are willing, let’s do an exercise.
Sit back, close your eyes, and just let your mind wander. Do this for about 30 seconds. Go on. I’ll wait.
What thoughts and images popped into your head? Were you thinking about how great things are? All the wonderful accomplishments you’ve made? Just basking in the bliss of the moment?
If you were thinking about those things, then I want to know your secret! When I let my mind wander, I tend to notice that thoughts about “unfinished business,” mundane stuff about the past, shortcomings, and random “stuff” tends to float through. And that is on a good day. Stressful days are different, as are the day before stressful days. Most of my clients report similar experiences when they do this little exercise. Of course, the specific content of the thoughts that pop into the mind will vary from person to person, but it seems that the mind has a preference for the negative.
Most of us don’t talk about the moment-to-moment crap that goes through our minds, so we might end up thinking this continuous stream of thinking is unique to us. We might also think that maybe we are weird or really “messed up” because of the things that seem to pop into our consciousness. To make matters worse, society gives us messages all the time that we should think good things, feel good feelings, and have wonderful experiences most of the time or something must be terribly wrong. Instagram and FaceBook perpetuate this myth by rewarding people with “likes” when they post beautiful pictures of themselves, their food, their location, etc. How many friends have you “unfollowed” because they complain all the time. Sound familiar?
Well, if you don’t always think wonderful thoughts and feel emotionally fantastic, then it might just mean that your brain is working perfectly. Yes, your read that right: experiencing “negative” thoughts and emotions might be the result of a having a completely normal brain.
Think about it for a second: human beings aren’t as physically gifted as other animals. Our sense organs are fairly unimpressive compared to most other animals. We don’t have big claws and fangs to protect ourselves from predators. We can’t really run or swim very quickly, nor can we fly without the help of a machine. Ah, but we can think! The human mind is really, really good at things like planning, analyzing, predicting, imagining, and comparing. But why is it good at these things? Well, these abilities allowed our ancestors to avoid being eaten, dying from exposure, doing something to get themselves kicked out of the tribe, and starving long enough to parent children. In other words, the human mind’s most basic “programming” was shaped by evolution to keep us alive long enough to procreate and to keep our offspring safe until they were mature. The mind did not evolve for fun.
Evolution is a really slow process, so we have basically the same mental abilities that humans had millennia ago. The difference is that we have developed many technological solutions to protect us from most of the dangers faced by our ancestors and have been able to pass along those solutions through language. Yay mind! However, we still have minds that are designed to be vigilant for signs of threat and to imagine and anticipate potential threat even when none exists. So, you can be sitting in your climate-controlled home, sipping a cup of coffee, petting your dog, and binge watching your favorite show after eating a delicious meal on pay day and STILL your minds can be thinking, “I wish my friends and family lived closer so I could talk to them more,” “I am almost out of ice cream, I need to go get some,” “Maybe if I were better looking/smarter/more ambitious, I would be doing something awesome rather than sitting on my couch,” “ugh…I don’t want to go to work tomorrow,” “What’s wrong with me?? Why can’t I just be happy?” Thanks mind for ruining another evening!
The mind doesn’t mean to ruin your evening, though. It’s just doing what it was designed to do: keep you alive as long as possible so that you can parent children. It really doesn’t know how to do anything else, and it’s hard wired to do what it does. Even if you don’t care about staying safe or having children, the mind will keep doing its job until you die, just like the heart and lungs will keep doing theirs.
So what are we to do when our minds don’t give us the thoughts, feelings, images, urges, and sensations that we want? As one of my meditation teachers likes to say, “it’s important to be gentle with the mind.” I love that advice. I think we have a tendency to fight with our minds as if they are the enemy, and this generally leads to more suffering. If we can learn to relate to the functioning of the mind in the same way we related to other involuntary functions like breathing, the beating of our hearts, digestion, and taking in information through the senses, we might have a little bit more freedom to put energy into doing the things that make life rich and meaningful. This starts with a willingness to accept that the mind is what it is.
So let’s try that experiment from the beginning of this post again. Sit back. Close your eyes. Let the mind do its thing one more time, but this time just see if you can gently observe what is happening. Imagine that you are a tall, snow-capped mountain and the thoughts that come from your mind are like clouds floating by. Even the most violent storm clouds can’t make a dent in a mountain, so let them float by, too.
Be gentle with the mind. It’s only doing its job.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are intended to be educational and entertaining. Reading this blog or attempting to apply any of the information therein does NOT mean that you have entered a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Andy. If you are currently experiencing a psychiatric emergency, please call 1-800-273-TALK, 911, or go to your nearest emergency room.