Want To Practice Mindfulness? Ask These 3 Questions.

“Mind is a flexible mirror, adjust it, to see a better world.” ―Amit Ray

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New Years has come and gone and I’ve spent the last few days thinking about this past year. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the changes I made this past year and the impact they’ve had on my quality of life.

I realized that the most significant, and sustainable action I took — the change that brought the most positive results — was to practice more mindfulness, or what I call ‘mindful questioning’.

Mindful questioning is the practice of asking better questions. Questions that help cut through the noise and raise awareness to our thoughts, feelings and actions. In short, questions that help us be more mindful.

These questions have created real, sustainable improvements in my relationships, my happiness and the way I experience reality. They’ve made my life consistently better.

So I thought what better way to ring in the New Year than with 3 questions I use to practice mindfulness.

Question #1 What emotions am I feeling right now?

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There’s a great moment in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when the narrator notices that his friend’s faucet has been dripping for over a year. One day the narrator sees that his friend’s wife is struggling to speak above the dripping noise. Her kids enter the room and she loses her temper at them. The main character observes:

“It seemed that her anger at the kids would not have been nearly as great if the faucet hadn’t also been dripping when she was trying to talk. It was the combined dripping and loud kids that blew her up. What struck me hard then was that she was not blaming the faucet, and that she was deliberately not blaming the faucet. She wasn’t ignoring that faucet at all! She was suppressing anger at that faucet and that goddamned dripping faucet was just about killing her!”

How often does this happen to us?

How often do we, like the wife, feel angry (or any other emotion) and don’t acknowledge it until it’s too late, and then lose our temper at something else?

Which brings me to the first question: What emotions am I feeling right now?

Although our emotional state profoundly influences the quality of our life, many of us aren’t aware of how we’re feeling at any given moment or what the impact may be.

Moreover, we don’t take the time to name the specific emotions we’re feeling. Or we’ll use blanket statements like angry or sad, instead of digging deeper to uncover anxiety, or disappointment.

Naming our emotions makes a big difference. When you name your emotions you diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create, making them less powerful. You also take responsibility for them, making it less likely that they will spill out at the expense of others over the course of a day.

However, we are so overwhelmed with thoughts and to do’s and notifications and podcasts and who knows what, that we don’t stop to understand what the hell is going on with us.

Or we numb what we’re feeling with Facebook, or a glass of wine, or overworking. And this doesn’t usually work. In fact, denying or avoiding feelings has been shown to lead to lower well-being and more physical symptoms of stress.

So the number 1 rule (in therapy and in life) is to check in with yourself.

To ask: What am I feeling, right at this moment? And to name the emotions. Use 2–3 words to describe what you’re feeling. And then ask yourself again, ‘What am I really feeling?’ and see if you get a different answer.

I do this about 3 times a day.

Question 2: What’s my dripping faucet? What thoughts are causing these emotions?

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Naming the emotion is the first step. The second step is correctly identifying the thoughts that gave rise to the emotion. It’s asking ‘what thoughts are causing these emotions?

This has been a game changer for me.

In the example above, the wife thinks she’s just angry at the kids. She doesn’t realize that it was not just the dripping faucet, but her thoughts about the dripping faucet, that were triggering her anger.

The dripping faucet is a metaphor for any circumstance in our lives. Sometimes these circumstances are obvious — e.g. someone yelling at us — but most of the time they are subtle. A bad feeling will come over us. We think that we just feel bad and carry this feeling with us forward, without even realizing that it was triggered by a thought.

There is a simple model that outlines how we come to feel things:

circumstances (sensations, stimuli) > thoughts > feelings (emotions) > actions

This is a cause and effect relationship. Circumstances (physical sensation, someone yelling at you, a long line at a supermarket, etc.) give rise to thoughts. And these thoughts trigger emotions, which result in actions. No matter the circumstance, emotions are always caused by a thought.

The problem is that the process (from thought to emotion) takes a fraction of a second. And we’re so overwhelmed and distracted throughout the day that we don’t even notice there is a process taking place.

The result is that we believe that we just feel things. Or that other people cause us to feel things. But this isn’t true.

Our thoughts are the sole drivers of our emotions — only our thoughts cause us to feel something (angry, sad, frustrated, happy, etc.). And the way to get some control over our emotions (and our reality) is to understand what we’re thinking and gain control over these thoughts.

Emotions are a signal. Understanding what we’re feeling helps us understand what we’re thinking.

For example, how often have you suddenly felt angry and don’t know why? Chances are that if you trace back your line of thought you’ll find that you saw something or got a notification, and that you remembered something that made you angry in the past, and that now you’re feeling angry. And this anger towards this thing is lurking, just like the dripping faucet.

The worst part is that we don’t even realize we’re angry. We snap at our partner or coworker and then we feel like assholes and the cycle continues. Or we simply feel sad and down, all because of a passing thought.

By correctly identifying the thoughts that led to the emotion, we 1) Gain clarity about our state of mind and 2) Can take steps to transform these thoughts, and ultimately our emotions.

Now that I know what I’m feeling, I can ask ‘What are the thoughts that are giving rise to these emotions?’.

Question #3 Is it True?

Let’s go back to the model:

circumstances (sensations, stimuli) > thoughts > feelings (emotions) > actions

So far we’ve 1) Clarified how we’re feeling and named the emotions and 2) Identified the thoughts that gave rise to these emotions.

Here it’s important to clarify that you can’t change the circumstances. They already happened. You can take steps to change them in the future. But you can’t change what already happened.

Therefore, the only way to effectively change your emotions is by changing your thoughts. For example, a negative thought gives rise to a negative emotion. It therefore follows that a way to transform the emotion, is to transform the thought.

It’s not about replacing negative thoughts with ‘happy’ thoughts. This doesn’t work.

It’s about objectively analyzing our thoughts — not just believing them because we thought them.

For example, a few days ago I was feeling down. I’m happy in my new role, I’m happy I’m writing. But I started to feel that I started this whole marketing and writing business too late.

I had the thought: ‘I’m too late in the game’. And therefore I’ll never ‘catch up’ and be successful (whatever that means).

This is a ‘piece of shit’ thought. A destructive thought. But it comes up.

This also happens with other people. A friend, partner or colleague will be a bit off one day and we immediately think: ‘He/She doesn’t like me.’

The problem is that we believe our own thoughts all the time. The deeper problem is that our thought patterns are largely formed out of habits, and the belief systems and thought processes we have inside our heads get stronger and reinforced as we get older — regardless of if they’re true.

Many of us are reinforcing thoughts that are not only false, but also actively bringing us down and limiting us (remember thoughts cause feelings which cause actions).

We believe these thoughts to be True simply because they come from inside our head. But they’re not always true.

One way to disarm such negative thoughts is to perform a simple analysis:

  1. Pay attention to what you’re thinking
  2. Make a choice about what to believe and ask:
  3. Is the thought capital T true?
  4. Am I absolutely sure it’s true?
  5. What’s the evidence?

For example:

  • Circumstance: Hearing about a really successful writer
  • Thought: I am too late in the game
  • Is this true? I don’t know.
  • Am I absolutely sure it’s true? No
  • What’s the evidence? There are many people who made a career change late in life.
  • *All you need is ONE example that contradicts your initial thought.
  • New thought: It’s true that I’m just starting out, but it’s not True that I’m ‘too late’. I enjoy writing and therefore can continue exploring this path.

or

  • Circumstance: Co-worker is being less friendly this morning
  • Thought: She/he doesn’t like me
  • Is it true? I don’t know
  • Am I absolutely sure it’s true? No
  • What’s the evidence? We like and respect each other. We have been working together for a few months. There is no reason for her/him to hate me.
  • New thought: Maybe I can be nicer to him/her, or ask if everything is ok.
  • BONUS: Think of 2 alternative explanations for why he/she is behaving this way.

Whenever I have a ‘piece of shit’ thought, I counter it with this truth question. And almost always the answer is that this thought is not True. Once I realize that the thought isn’t true, I can move on to more positive and constructive thoughts.

Now what?

This is just the beginning. I find myself asking these questions whenever I’m feeling down or confused or upset. Whenever I see myself snapping at someone or overly upset or sad over something. They really help.

Homework

As usual, my goal is to provide a practical application of these concepts. So anytime you’re feeling down or off, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. What am I feeling? Name these emotions.
  2. What thoughts are causing these emotions?
  3. Are they true? Am I absolutely sure they’re true?

In the next newsletter I’ll explore more questions that can help clarify what we’re thinking and feeling and help us take more positive and constructive actions.