It’s easy to live life in a pattern of overthinking and brooding. It’s something that most of us don’t realise we are even doing. Up until the age of 39, I had spent my entire life losing several hours a day to this corrosive habit.
I’m sure many of you know the drill; you run over past events and failures in your mind constantly, trying to find reasons for why things happened the way they did. When you’re not doing this, you run scenarios around in your mind about how future events will pan out. The rest of the time is spent worrying about money worries, or the gap between the possessions you do have , compared to the possessions you want to have.
The fact is, it’s easy to see your thoughts as real, as the truth, as who you are. In reality, your thoughts are not you, they are just mental events, to which you have formed an attachment and an identity – a conceptual prison.
The thinking mind is a very useful tool. It is great when you’re driving a car, or trying to find somewhere in a city for example. It is great for solving physical problems and in the world of work. What it is completely useless for though, is solving emotional or mental problems, but it will try, and try, and try! It will run these problems around your mind for hours or even days at a time, trying in vain to find a solution, causing untold suffering.
Don’t get me wrong, life can be very painful at times. This emotional pain is necessary and part and parcel of living an authentic and wholehearted life. Let’s clear something up: Pain is not suffering. Suffering is when you subject yourself to emotional pain by re-living it hour after hour, day after day.
There is another way to live. When you can find a way to shut off this mental noise, you will find that you can find peace and joy in every day and create space for wisdom. Wisdom is not a product of thinking, it is a product of the conscious mind.
When you can learn to be present and live in the moment, giving a moment your full attention, then wisdom has the space to do its work. When you are locked in the conceptual prison of overthinking, you can think about a problem for hours or days and still not have a solution.
Stopping the mental noise and overthinking gives you the space you need to see problems not only with more awareness and clarity, but also to see them for what they are; it can help to ask yourself if the problem you are currently experiencing will be a problem in one day, one week, one month or one year from now. If it will not, then this alone helps you get the scale of the problem into perspective.
So how do you go about escaping this conceptual prison of overthinking? With the practice of Mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment and realising that all we have is this moment right now.
Thoughts of the past are often skewed by the mind and distorted, and thoughts of the future are just pure fiction – your mind playing out things that will probably never happen, or at least not happen the way you are imagining, so all we really have is this moment, right now.
There are several books (some are listed at the end of this article) Mindfulness groups and even apps for your phone available, so why not get started today? Mindfulness contains many useful tools to help you deal with your emotions and work through problems, by being aware of them, but by not trying to use the mind to solve them.
The way we solve problems with our mind is: your mind will create a gap between where you are now and where you want to be. Merely bringing this gap to attention makes it a focus, which then shows you the distance between where you are now and where you have to be in order to bridge this gap.
This is perfect for physical problems, as by referring back to this gap, you can measure how you are achieving results. By thinking this way when it comes to mind problems though, the gap widens and the more you focus on it, the bigger it will be, especially if you keep running it around in your thought processes and ‘failing’ to solve it.
The mindful way of working through these problems, is to bring them to mind – be conscious of them in detail and be aware of them, without trying to solve them. This allows you to recognise the problem you are having, work out how it is affecting you by being aware of how the feelings are affecting your body, and breathe through the pain.
This will help you when working through painful past issues and will help you with depression and anxiety issues too, but it does require cultivation and practice. This practice will be very worthwhile though, as eventually practicing mindfulness will free up time in your life, by releasing you from wasting time brooding over problems, or doing lots of pointless tasks every single day. It helps to bring a wider perspective to life, to stop life feeling so relentless and to focus on what’s important.
This, in turn, will help you with social comparison too. We all make snap judgements about other people, which are based on our social conditioning from birth onwards.
We mould people into stereotypes we have made and lock them in their own conceptual prisons. By doing so, we make it impossible to see people as humans like us, who are fighting for survival each and every day.
Just because someone drives an expensive car, dresses a certain way, or acts in certain ways, does not mean they are better or worse than you, or good or bad.
People live life according to their fears, hopes and dreams and it can be helpful to see people whom you view in a negative light as vulnerable children, who have had to toughen up in this world through fear of being hurt, or appearing weak.
Most people equate being vulnerable with being weak, although it is actually the polar opposite of weakness; allowing yourself to be vulnerable actually takes extreme courage. By refusing to appear vulnerable, we build barriers – a hard shell to keep people from hurting us and this can affect many of our relationships.
So just because someone has more money than you, more friends than you, a bigger house or a better education, they are not better than you, they are just different. Using mindfulness to stop us living according to our egos, shows us that we are actually all equal – not better or worse and it helps us to see everyone as a vulnerable human being fighting for survival and helps us to move forward with a more values driven life.
If you feel the need to compare yourself to anyone, then compare yourself to a previous version of you. Journaling can help here; it enables you to see how much growth has occurred in a month, a year, ten years, and it is very helpful to look at this if you are having a tough time.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can find mindfulness guides for free on the internet and free meditation apps for your phone. If, like me, you need to read a lot of different information on a subject before it switches on a light bulb, or really sinks in, here are a few books we can recommend:
Mindfulness, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.
This book is in the format of an 8 week course and comes with a free CD of guided meditations. Putting the meditations on your phone or MP3 player, means you can take a time out virtually anywhere to meditate and find some peace. The book and CD combined contains all the tools you need to make long-term changes to your brain and make Mindfulness a part of your life. Definitely recommended as a place to begin.
Stillness Speaks by Eckhart Tolle.
This book is a handy one to carry with you wherever you go, especially in the early days of Mindfulness practice, as it helps to bring stillness to your life. Many people only turn to Mindfulness when they are in a place of desperation; hopelessly depressed, or going through a traumatic life experience and this book helps you to realise that your thoughts and the mental noise you are experiencing are not your true essence. Your life situation is not you. You can escape the mental noise and simply be.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
Another book by Eckhart Tolle and a very good book too. Stillness Speaks is actually a translation of this book into shorter passages in plainer language. The Power of Now is a very deep book, which often takes more than one read to sink in. Some of the information contained within though is priceless. Our opinion: Not the first book you should read, but definitely worth a look when you have some Mindfulness experience, or want to further open your mind.
Wherever you go, there you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
This is a very informative book, which explores many different types of meditation in depth. The insights that Jon Kabat-Zinn gives are very valuable, but again; probably not the first book you should pick up on the subject.