Overthinking: A trick of the mind

Too much thinking or overthinking can become something that holds us back from living a life of fullness and wellbeing. Reflective thought is the great gift we possess as human beings. However, it can also become a source of great discontentment and worry. Much of what I share today is based on my own experiences and struggles as an ‘over-thinker’.

The Human Gift

The human mind allows us the unique ability to reflect, self-reflect and analyse in a way that no other creature on the planet can. But we can sometimes fall into the trap of believing that we are our thoughts. Our reflective powers are incredibly powerful, yet they are just that ― “reflective”. By this I mean that our thoughts are fundamentally reactionary and evaluative, and therefore always “late”, one step behind.

If we are constantly in our thoughts, we are in someways always “catching up”, never fully living in the moment, never really feeling fulfilled. The key here is not to criticise or try to get rid of thought, which is an impossibility. The key is rather to understand how to harness thought without becoming consumed by it. How do we then use this incredible gift that we have as human beings without being weighed down by it?

Awareness

Realising that we are NOT our thoughts is in many ways the starting point. It is certainly true that how we think of and relate to things can have a profound impact on our relationship to them. This is however a far cry from the idea that your sense of being as a person can only exist through your thinking about it, or that the world can only makes sense because we have evaluated it.

Intellectual appreciation of this point is the beginning, the rest requires us to become aware of how our thoughts are constantly chattering away and analysing.

Overthinking is at least partly responsible for the worry and anxiety that many of us face in modern life. The mind is either looking backwards into the past, anxiously anticipating the future or critically analysing the present. It is almost as if the mind seems unable to be still and simply take in what is.

“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest
 form of intelligence.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

Mindfulness exercises like observing your breathing and/or the sensations in your body are great tools for calming the mind and building greater awareness of our thoughts. Ultimately, the idea is to be able to take this beyond formal exercises and incorporate awareness into everyday living, so that it forms part of a way of being.

Immersion

This way of being is about allowing ourselves to fully immerse in our environments, to more directly notice without evaluation the colours, sounds, smells and shapes that make up our world. A way of being that allows us to more directly intuit our being part of a greater whole, which includes our connection to each other as humans and to the entire realm of nature.

This way of being also requires us to let go of our constant desire to control everything in our environment. This does not imply passivity ― far from it, it is more of an active engagement in reality, like a surfer on a wave. We are both at the same time the masters of our destinies as we are the servants of fate!

What underpins this way of being is a non-evaluative immersion in what is unfolding. The mind is not criticising or judging, but rather simply immersed in what is, beyond any right and wrong, good or bad.

It is useful to note that being immersed in something is not the same as being consumed by it (anger for example). In some ways immersion is the opposite of being consumed by something. If we are consumed by anger, we are in a way “stuck” in it. If we are immersed in anger on the other hand, we are more likely to experience it without judgement, acknowledge it as a natural part of life, move on and come out of it more quickly.

Focusing the Mind

Interestingly, the ‘remedy’ to overthinking also seems to lie within the realm of thought. What we are doing however is NOT to think our way out of overthinking. It is rather about occupying this highly active part of our minds with something else ― immersion in what is, without critical evaluation. It can even be described as a way of stopping our critical evaluative minds from interfering, by focusing it on something else.

At a micro level that focus could be on whatever it is that your are doing, a tennis player immersed in the game for example. At the macro level, our minds can focus on the meaning that is inherent in all of life and recognise the illusion of control that we think we have. It is fair to say that maintaining such focus can be very tricky.

Overthinking can creep up on us at any moment. By becoming more aware however, what we are doing is giving ourselves the chance to focus better and more fully immerse ourselves in everything we do without critical evaluation.

Awareness ―> Focus ―> Immersion

It is very important to recognise that awareness too can lead us down the same path of overthinking if we are not careful. Since we can become aware that we are aware, we can easily get caught-up in an evaluation of how aware we are!

“This is the price that you pay for knowing that you know, 
 for being able to think about thinking” ― Alan Watts

Final Thoughts

The modern mind is one caught-up in its own thoughts for much of the time. Awareness of our overthinking patterns is in someways both the beginning and the end. Once we begin to recognise and notice the frisky nature of thought, it is then up to us to focus the mind differently. Through awareness and focus, we can begin to wholeheartedly immerse ourselves in everything we do.

With thanks to Phil Best for his input on this article


Originally published at executivecoachinglondon.com on December 6, 2016.