“Thoughts are not facts”. You may have heard this phrase before, it is often quoted in mindfulness textbooks or on mindfulness courses. When we are thinking clearly it can seem obvious to us that this is the case. However, when we are stressed, anxious or feeling low our thoughts can become negatively skewed and, because they fit with our mood at the time, we can be prone to automatically accepting them to be true. We don’t often stop to question them and before we know it we can find ourselves swept along on a chain of negative thinking or worrying that takes us to a place we’d really rather not be in our mind. This can lower our mood further or increase our anxiety levels. Our thoughts also often have a powerful effect on what we do, or don’t do.
Our minds have a great capacity for storytelling. With limited information, they fill in the gaps around it, guessing at the missing details. They often create an elaborate story, which might be very far from reality. Have you ever had the experience of not receiving a text back from someone by a certain point and found your mind going to the worst case scenario of what could have happened to them? Our mind always gives us an interpretation of a situation, rather than an objective view on the reality of it. These interpretations are generally shaped by our unconscious beliefs, assumptions and emotions. Sometimes they might be close to the objective reality and at other times they might be very far from it. Unfortunately the mind finds it very difficult to discern between fact and fiction once it has started to construct its own version of events.
Mindfulness can help us to relate differently to our thoughts. During mindfulness practices we train ourselves to notice thoughts and images entering the mind and let go of them by returning attention to the breath or body. This allows us to gain some distance from thoughts and get perspective on them. Over time we start to view thoughts as just mental events in the mind (even the ones that say they are not), and see that we are not our thoughts. We can see thoughts as clouds passing through the sky of the mind. Relating to thoughts in this way makes it easier for us to avoid getting caught up in, and swept along with, what our minds are telling us.
With continued practice, mindfulness enables us to become more aware of what we are thinking at any given moment of the day. Being more aware of our thoughts allows us to make a conscious choice about whether we wish to continue with a particular line of thinking or if we would prefer to direct our attention towards something else. In this way, mindfulness can give us a way of stepping out of chains of negative thinking or worrying. Over time it becomes possible to notice these chains taking hold earlier in the process and we can then move away from them quicker. Our thoughts don’t have to control us anymore, we can ultimately find a place of freedom from them.
If you are interested in learning mindfulness, I have an 8-week Mindfulness for Life Course and introductory taster session happening soon in Exeter. I will also be running a day retreat this Saturday 14th January in Ide Village, just outside Exeter.