Thinking is obviously an important tool. Humans have the powerful ability to think about the past and the future, make narratives about our lives that help us navigate new situations, and consider the consequences of our actions. We don’t simply smash through life chasing whatever gives us pleasure no matter the consequences (mostly). And this is because we can think.
Thinking, though, is hardly all-powerful. The world is unpredictable and our emotions are unruly. Thinking can make us feel in control, even when we’re really not. We get addicted to thinking, spending many a sleepless night mentally gnawing on problems we simply can’t solve.
The word “mindful” means that we are using our cognitive abilities, our rationality and our intelligence, to be present and make conscious choices: we are full of mind. But our minds can be wild and wooly, full of assumptions, expectations, and anxieties that may or may not be rooted in reality. Our brains also have different minds within them: we have rational, logical parts and primal, emotional parts of our brains that may react in opposing ways to the same situation. So how do we develop a compassionate relationship with our own minds? How do we break our addiction to thinking?
Don’t believe everything you think.
Our brains are full of bugs and glitches like unconscious biases, insecurities, and fear-based reactions, some of which are instigated in the nervous system, which has no time for logic. When some situation in the present triggers a similar situation in the past, the brain manufactures similar conclusions before gathering unique information about what’s actually happening now. We can be far too quick to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know, like what someone else is thinking or what’s going to happen in the future.
Talk to someone about what’s going on.
We are notoriously bad at introspecting. When we need to solve a big problem, we often have the urge to go into the forest all alone and think things through without distractions. While there may be value in that, introspecting alone has a limit. Lacking any new information, the mind becomes a broken record, skipping in the same spot over and over again. We are social animals with the capacity to learn from each other; our friends and therapists may be better able to see where our record is skipping than we can.
Get some rest.
Our mental chewing keeps us up at night because we want to solve a problem before we let go into sleep. Sleep, though, can actually be a helpful place for cognition. It’s a little like a mental rinse cycle: we shed superfluous thoughts and memories, and what looms largest sticks with us. Our dreams, where the limits of reality and logic lift, may help reveal a new perspective. Many brilliant minds have discovered innovative solutions while they were dreaming.
Return to the body.
Body and mind are hardly as separate as they may seem. Our brains and nervous systems are constantly communicating, and whether we’ve eaten or exercised can hugely shift our mood. Fear and anxiety in the nervous system can actually shut down our ability to think clearly. Calming physical practices like yoga or going for a walk can reset the nervous system and bring our rational brains back online.
Thinking is certainly important, but it works best when in relationship with our physical, social, and emotional selves. There’s real wisdom in getting out of our heads every now and then and humbling ourselves to all we don’t know.