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“We do not know what a thought is, yet we’re thinking them all the time.” — Ani Tenzin Palmo
Here’s a typical thought pattern when I feel very angry:
“Why would they do this to me?! I cannot take this anymore. It makes me furious! I just want to be left in peace. Why does it keep happening? I failed to keep my calm again — not great.”
For the sake of propriety, I took out all the f-bombs. But what remains is a lot of judgment, self-victimizing, and focusing on how I believe things should be.
This is a typical mental pattern I engage in when faced with what I perceive to be someone’s disapproval or disrespect. This is not a one-off occurrence. It tends to be rather automatic, repetitive reaction to certain feelings and circumstances. It’s one of the many mental habits of mine.
When a bad mental habit like this takes over, it usually makes me feel even worse.
If I manage to notice it, I can remind myself of the truth that my well-being and happiness are my responsibility. I can make a choice as to how I interpret my experience — and the choice I can make can lead to greater happiness.
For example: do I cling to a destructive mental patterns and believe in what it tells me? Or do I instead notice it and let it go, saving energy for nurturing, appreciative thoughts that shape my brain to my highest benefit?
It’s worth the attention and effort to change. Science shows that the mental habits we cultivate can change the way our brains are wired. Over time, our thought processes create new neural pathways and cause other physical modifications in the brain, thanks to something called neuroplasticity. Moreover, the brain is prone to such changes not only during childhood and adolescence, but throughout our entire lifetime.
“Neuroplasticity refers to the malleable nature of the brain, and its constant, ongoing. Self-directed neuroplasticity means doing it with clarity and skillfulness and intention.” — Rick Hanson
In this article I’ll show you how to engage in self-directed neuroplasticity. At any point in life, we have an ability and (in my opinion) a responsibility to improve our mental habits. I’m going to give you some exercises for how to do just that, and some examples of the kinds of transformed thought patterns you can work towards.
Negative cognitive bias
“Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason — to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.” — Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today
Scientists believe that negative cognitive bias is a result of evolution. Our brains are inclined to identify as many potential problems and threats as possible in order to help us survive.
This served us at earlier stages of our evolution, when physical survival wasn’t at all granted. The negative cognitive bias kept us sensitive to potential dangers, enabling a quick, life-saving reaction.
Nowadays, we don’t need to constantly fight for survival. We don’t have to worry about jaguars stalking us or poisonous snakes lurking among the leaves. And yet, our brain is still busy detecting potential threats — whether there are real dangers or not. The survival impulse means we might react to things like relatively minor problems at work or family quarrels as if our life depended on them.
Unfinished project at work. Problems with a partner or a constant problem of no partner. Not having enough money. Someone who doesn’t understand us. Someone who is angry with us. Feeling tired, but not able to get enough sleep.
The brain makes sure we take special notice of those issues, in case they might be life-threatening situations.
Positive situations, on the other hand, are not perceived as a threat, so our instincts allow us to stay relaxed and open. But that can also make it seem as if these positive situations are not as important, and we don’t dwell on them the same way we stew over our negative experiences.
The key is to become more conscious of these thought processes; in this way, you can take more charge of your thoughts. You can actually train your mental processes so you can overcome the negative bias and become a happier person.
“[…] if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape — will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.” — Rick Hanson
What separates happy and unhappy people is often the mental habits they cultivate on a daily basis.
Rick Hanson explains the neuropsychological mechanisms behind this phenomenon in this presentation.
How do you take active steps to cultivate mental behaviours that serve you? Can you rewire your thought patterns based on negative bias and overcome life-long habits that don’t benefit you? Here are some exercises based on my own observations and discussions.
Your Happiness Tools: Consciousness and Attention
Luckily, the toolbox necessary for this process is intrinsic to all of us. It consists of two elements: consciousness and attention. You already have these tools. You simply need to learn how to wield them to your advantage.
Consciousness is a lens which lets you observe the mental habits influencing your life. Learning how to use this lens allows you to magnify and observe thoughts or repetitive mental patterns. If you examine those patterns consistently, you will certainly become aware that they impact you in a very real way — but also, that you can change them.
Expanding your consciousness is a life-long habit of inquiry that helps you become increasingly aware of what’s really going on inside (and outside) of you.
Attention is a vehicle which helps you direct your awareness. If you learn how to operate this vehicle, you can choose what you occupy your mind with. This is what taking charge of your thoughts really means: being able to decide what you focus your attention on.
Attention and consciousness are complementary tools that work best when used together.
3 steps for taking charge of your mental habits
Use these three steps as a framework to take charge of your thought process. As you become more practiced with the tools of consciousness and attention, you will navigate this process more intuitively, rather than as a step-by-step tutorial. But this is the way to begin.
Step 1: Become aware
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” — Mindful.org
The first step in developing beneficial mental habits is becoming aware of the thoughts that you’re already having. You can practice this awareness in two main ways: (1) meditation and (2) prompted awareness.
Mindfulness meditation is the easiest way to start as it creates “laboratory” conditions, which are particularly helpful in the beginning of your thought work. Set aside some time every day when you can sit down alone and do nothing but observe.
Your breath can act as an anchor to the present moment, so become aware of it first. Then do your best to notice any thoughts, judgments, mental images and emotions that appear. Your main focus is on thoughts, but remember that they can take various forms — from a mental image of someone’s face to judging what you are currently doing. For example: “I don’t like this. It is boring. I am not getting anywhere with this meditation.”
Try to notice as much as you can without fighting with your thoughts. Don’t get caught up in the idea that meditation is about “not thinking”. Mindfulness meditation is acknowledging anything that comes without trying to change it — including all the thoughts.
For a more detailed tutorial on mindfulness meditation, check out this guide.
Prompted awareness means becoming aware of your thoughts in the middle of your day’s events, rather than in a meditation setting. Set a trigger for yourself, which will remind you to check in with your thought process. It can be becoming aware of your breath or entering an intense emotional state, or you can set an alarm as an outward trigger (or some sound or action that occurs in your day that’s out of your control — for example, sirens, if you live in the city).
Whenever your trigger occurs, take a moment to notice what mental pathways you’re currently wandering through. For example, are you rehashing a negative experience, or worrying about the future?
Step 2: Establish a healthy relationship with your thoughts
Thoughts are not reality— yet they can impact you in a very real way, depending on how you perceive them.
You are not your thoughts.
So, you need establish a healthy relationship with them.
When you notice a particular thought appearing in your mind, you can ask yourself these types of questions:
- Do I believe this thought to be reality, or do I acknowledge that it is just a mental construct?
- Do I toss and turn this thought in my head, or do I let it go?
- Can I accept the thought in the shape it appears, or am I trying to change it?
- Can I welcome other thoughts or am I closing myself away from them?
- What feelings does this thought trigger in me?
Pose these questions and wait for the answers— it might not be obvious straight away, but formulating the question is what matters most. With time, you will start realising how you relate to your thoughts.
You might simply ask, “But is that true?”
The healthiest relationship you can have with your thoughts is one that’s full of acceptance, but healthy distance. This means that you welcome any thoughts coming to you and don’t try to pretend they’re not there, but at the same time you don’t identify yourself with them.
When you notice something like: “What a lousy cashier! I should have gone to another check-out,” you don’t have to believe that this is true. You know it to be a mental interpretation, not an ultimate reality. What are the alternatives? Perhaps this person is an excellent cashier who’s just having a bad day, and maybe choosing the other line would have taken even longer. You’re open to the possibilities.
When you think: “Well done me! I really led this meeting well!” you acknowledge that you feel like you did well, and enjoy that feeling. Yet, it doesn’t mean your performance will be the same at the next meeting. It doesn’t make you a “better person”. Your self-worth isn’t bound to how well you can lead a meeting.
Step 3: Accept and make a choice
After you have asked yourself the right questions and observed the answers long enough, you will notice something. This might feel like unlocking a new level of consciousness.
You can impact your own thoughts.
It’s not that you can plan ahead what you’re going to think about during the next 30 minutes of meditation. It doesn’t mean that you will be controlling and deciding what is ‘allowed’ to appear in your mind and what is not.
But you will find that your conscious awareness allows you to shape your intention as to what kind of a long-term mental attitude you want to cultivate.
Becoming aware of your mental habits lets you decide whether you “cling” to these thoughts or not. Consciousness enables you to move beyond the belief that your thoughts are “true” and to see them for what they really are: mental interpretations deriving from the unconscious mind.
You can cultivate some of those interpretations over others — without rejecting any of them.
You have the freedom to choose. You choose how you interpret your life experience and which of those interpretations you favour and nurture.
You will notice judgments and gratitude, impatience and acceptance, worries and appreciation. Welcome them all: they tell you something about yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise know.
The clearer you see your thoughts, the more you realise that choosing some of them over others benefit you significantly. Kindness and acceptance prove to be constructive. Judgment and regret are destructive. You notice the effects of those mental habits over longer periods of time — this is why consistency in examining them is so important.
Naturally and organically, you make a choice as to which attitudes and habits you want to cultivate. Then you apply conscious attention to practice them and explore their mechanics whenever given an opportunity. You will come to understand that these opportunities are constantly around you.
Now I want to give you three examples of how this might play out in real life. These are examples of mental habits that you can change through consciousness and attention to your thoughts.
Habit: Living in the past or future instead the present
Situation: You are in the middle of a dentist treatment.
Old habit—living in the past or future: You focus on how terribly it might hurt when doctor starts drilling in your teeth. You rehash past experiences where dental treatment was painful. Your mind projects unbearable scenarios of pain and discomfort which are about to happen.
New habit—staying in the present: You focus on registering moment-to-moment experience, as you realise that nothing painful is happening right now. If you feel pain, it is only the pain in this moment. You don’t dwell on how much there is still to come, because a) you cannot really know it b) you cannot do anything about it. You become aware of your breath in the moment and consciously ask your muscles to relax.
Habit: Judgment instead of kindness
Situation: You are given a summary of sales results at work, where your outcomes are listed alongside your colleagues’.
Old Habit—Judging Mind: You compare your results with your colleagues and, depending on how you did in relation to them — you feel inferior or superior. You make your self-worth conditional on appearing “better” than others. You become arrogant with a person who is lower in the ranking, and intimidated in front of those higher than you.
New Habit—Kind Mind: You notice yourself falling into judgment and decide to cultivate an attitude of kindness instead. You put your attention to appreciating the efforts everyone made to achieve their results — not on how you rank in comparison to others. Even if you feel a strike of disappointment — because you didn’t do as well as you expected — kindness lets you approach it with gentleness and acceptance. You know you simply did your best with what you had, and so did everybody else.
Habit: Hurrying vs. patience
Situation: After dinner you want to make yourself cozy on a sofa and read a book — but there are dishes to be washed first.
Old Habit—hurrying through unpleasantness: You want to get the dishes done as quickly as possible, so you can relax with the book sooner. Your mind values the experience of reading more it does doing the dishes. Unfortunately, once you hit the sofa and open your book, the intended state of enjoyment doesn’t appear. Instead, your mind remains restless and, as the habit dictates, it is still looking to hurry off somewhere else, next.
New Habit—Patient Mind: You want to relax, so you go ahead and do so while you wash the dishes. What senses do you engage as you do the dishes? What gratitude can the practice of doing dishes instill in you? (For example, do you enjoy your kitchen? Are you thankful for the food you had to eat? Do you appreciate living in a situation where you have clean running water and soap?) You can actually enjoy the dishes while you are doing them.
This last example is a great way to your practice today: choose not to rush doing your dishes. Check out what happens when you choose to believe that you have enough time for everything. Choose to be patient and present while you wash those plates. Fail at it, catch yourself hurrying — then choose it again. Observe how your mind changes over time. Accept whatever you notice and keep nurturing the image of how you want to be. It is about making a this choice over and over again.
Any habit is born from and nurtured by repetition. And so it is with the mental habits of presence, patience and kindness — they need to be fed repeatedly in order to grow. And when they grow, they will show you how to enjoy both reading a book and washing dishes.
Accept that the changes to your mental habits will not be immediate. That’s why you need to be consistent and gentle with yourself. You understand that shaping the habits of your choice takes time and practice.
But isn’t it delightful to already know that you do have the freedom to choose them?