My clinical work is flourishing with clients who live in their heads. They are anxious or depressed and they are trapped in the middle of their thinking mind. It’s the worst sort of imprisonment. I know; I’ve been there.
The mind of an anxious and/or depressed person tends to do an overly efficient job by thinking of all the things that have gone wrong (or could go wrong), in order to keep you safe. Left unattended, the thinking mind is constantly surveying the landscape, creating negative narratives or fueling existing negative beliefs about the self and others, and demanding that you pay undivided attention to its incessant chatter.
The good news, is that the mind doesn’t have you; you have it. Which means, you are NOT a helpless victim of your anxious, depressed mind, and you are NOT trapped. The more you practice defusion, acceptance, and taking values-driven actions, the less your thinking mind will control you, and the more you will have control of your behaviors.
The thinking mind prevents us from staying present and open to new experiences, new information, and our ability to creatively adapt to each moment as it comes. Rather than build trust and confidence that we can rise to the challenges of life, the mind convinces us that we need to live in fear and put our efforts into controlling our lives, rather than letting go of our unhelpful thoughts and beliefs.
Everyone who deals with anxiety and depression wants to feel better. We imagine ourselves in some future time and place when we have overcome our struggles and are at last living fulfilling, meaningful lives. We escape into a fantasy life free from suffering while we simultaneously remain caught in our habit of self-blame and self-criticism. We organize our lives in such a way as to avoid making changes that will actually make a difference and instead, continue to do what doesn’t work and keeps us stuck.
The way to become the future person you long to be isn’t by thinking your way there; it’s by working with what’s right in front of you now. Attending to this moment with your full presence and awareness allows you to move successfully into the next moment. We can do this moment to moment and build upon each successful present moment into the future. When we neglect to be fully present in the moment, we are doing a half-assed job clouded by fear and doubt, which traps us into staying stuck.
Imagine that behind your eyes is a spotlight on a swivel that can swing its light 360 degrees. The light can shine inwardly to illuminate predominantly your thoughts or mental images, or it can swivel 180 degrees to shine out of your eyes onto what’s right in front of you.
Try this experiment: the next time you’re in the kitchen making dinner or washing dishes, notice your hands and pay attention to what they are doing. Usually, we mindlessly cut vegetables or fill the sink with soapy water while our minds chatter away under the spotlight of our attention. So the exercise is to purposefully disengage from your thoughts and swivel your light of awareness from the thoughts to what’s right in front of you. If you’re cooking, that means paying attention to the cutting, stirring, sounds or smells that are emanating from the meal you’re preparing. If you’re doing dishes, pay attention to the feel of the warm water on your hands and the sounds of the dishes in the sink.
How is this practice going to help me, you may ask?
It helps by breaking the habit of mind that keeps you stuck. It helps by building the muscle of mindfulness so that you can experience for yourself that you are so much more than the thoughts in your head and there is so much more to life than what you think about life.
But what about my to-do list? It’s a mile long!
Realizing that you may never accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished in any given moment doesn’t mean you need to worry and fret about it. Simply say to yourself, “I’m doing my best in this moment,” and then stay fully aware in the moment and do your best.
This new year, I invite you to resolve to exercise your capacity to let go of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs and to work with what’s right in front of you. By refocusing your spotlight of attention away from mental images outward to what’s right in front of you, you begin to break the habit of suffering from which you so desperately wish to escape. You start with where you are. Devote yourself fully to defusing from your thinking mind, paying attention to what’s right in front of you, and clarifying/living your values. Before you know it, you will be closer than ever to becoming your future best self.