A friend recently said to me, “I often feel like my thoughts are hammers, and they keep on hammering down on this thing known as my brain.” This is a pretty apt description of how a lot of people feel every day; I’ve certainly experienced it. I’ve written, here and there, about how the brain copes and how to dial down the background level of stress. But an even more fundamental question is how to deal with the negative, or otherwise undesirable, thoughts we have, on a moment-to-moment basis. In other words, when just you and your brain are alone together, how do you get it to quit assaulting you and just let you be?
In principle, the answer is beautifully simple – thoughts don’t have to be believed. You can just acknowledge the ridiculous or negative thoughts that pop into your head, chuckle at them, and then release them. This is the essence of mindfulness.
The problem is that, depending on your outlook or your level of stubbornness, this practice doesn’t always work so easily, at least in the beginning. To help try to figure out how to quell the thoughts that we don’t want to have, I turned to neuroscientist and mindfulness expert, Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, who has done some beautiful work in his lab at Yale on the neural (and behavioral) changes that come from mindfulness practice. Not only does he study it, he’s lived it: He knows firsthand both how challenging it can be to bring attention away from the negative chatter, and, fairly recently, how rewarding it can be when it does work.
Brewer tells me about his own experience, when after a couple of years of meditating with limited success, he went to a weeklong retreat. He found himself literally weeping on the shoulder of his teacher, so frustrated he was at the apparent ineffectuality of the practice. He says that between sobs, he said to his teacher what so many others have said: It doesn’t work, it’s too hard, it’s making things worse instead of better. For all the people for whom this rings true, and who find it hard to practice mindfulness in the classic ways (by meditating or trying to do something as simple as shift attention to the breath), there may be more success elsewhere: Retraining how the brain thinks a little more literally.
One of the major problems with “self-talk” is that while it can be annoying and destructive, it’s also self-perpetuating, because it’s sort of sickly rewarding. “That tendency to focus on ourselves is something we’ve been doing our whole lives, and,” jokes Brewer, “why Facebook is so popular. The whole cycle is self-propagating.” While there’s sometimes some benefit to be gained from the “self-referential” thoughts (maybe one out of every hundred thoughts we have, we realize something worthwhile), there’s also a lot of pain.
That’s the fundamental first step: Realizing what bullsh*t most of our thoughts are, and how much grief they bring. “We often can’t see how painful the everyday chatter is. That chatter actually takes a lot of effort. But when we try to suppress it, it usually backfires, and makes things worse. The key to changing the cycle is that we HAVE to become disenchanted with it, and realize how painful it is.” Once we do this, getting out of it is, for the most part, easier.
And to realize how unpleasant most of our thoughts are, we have to experience – or remind ourselves of – another way, for a point of reference. “It’s kind of like beating your head against tree vs. eating chocolate,” says Brewer. “You realize, ‘wow, there’s something better than banging my head against the tree; guess I’ll eat more chocolate.’” When we have something to compare our normal thought process to (like chocolate, or, in reality, a better mental state), we realize how painful our norm has been. It’s just a matter of seeing that difference (the head-banging vs.the chocolate or self-obsession vs. mindfulness), and we naturally become disenchanted. We can’t force it, it just happens.
So this is where mindfulness comes in. As I and many others have found, it’s not a magic switch that you can flip to free your brain. It takes some practice, and Brewer recommends building that muscle intentionally – not when you’re in the midst of the stress, but when you’re slightly outside it.
“The way I started, and what I recommend, is to go and find something that is naturally interesting that can draw your curiosity in,” says Brewer. “This does take practice (it’s not a five-minutes-at-your-desk endeavor). What we’re after is getting the mind back into a curious, playful state. Think about how children are fascinated by everything. We first need that fascination BACK, and then this can (with time) take the place of worry and negative chatter.” We have to work at it a bit, intentionally conjuring up the sort of curious mental energy that we’ve all experienced at some point or another.
Start by picking something that might have fascinated you when you were a kid, he says. “I’m standing here looking at bark of a tree, for example. I can become totally drawn in to pattern, color, texture – it’s actually really easy to get sucked in. So you have to build that ‘curiosity’ muscle – it’s just like doing push-ups – and it takes some time. Then, when you have some experience in this mindset of curiosity, and you’re back at your desk, you can approach your own (negative) thoughts with the exact same curiosity.”
You’ll (eventually) be able to come at them in this same way. “When you have a worry thought, instead of pushing it away, like we usually try to do, say to yourself, ‘Woah, where did this come from?’ ‘What does my body feel like when I have this thought?’” Investigate it without reacting to it.
“This is pure, fascinated attention,” says Brewer, and this is what helps us pull ourselves out of the usual thought processes. You can apply this “muscle” to everything, once it’s been built. And this may be what mindfulness is all about.
“It’s like the old adage from the pali cannon: ‘I’ve long been tricked, duped by this mind,’” he says. But we can learn to not let the brain get the better of us, simply by reminding it of a better way, and practicing it intentionally. “It took me years to do this! My practice has only taken off in the last two years. What took off was when I changed my practice – becoming curious and fascinated with my thought patterns instead of trying to beat them down. By diving in with curiosity instead of pushing them away, they became much less compelling and less of a problem. They don’t grab me nearly as much anymore.It doesn’t have to be serious and grim. It should be joyful and playful.”
In many ways, the brain will do what it will do. But it is rewire-able. It just has to be reminded of a better way – and reminded again, and perhaps again – which will ultimately shift our thoughts for the better, so that they can’t “dupe” us as they have before. So, in the end, it’s not so much about killing our thoughts as it is about investigating them until they lose their power, and they often stop coming on their own. This is the real practice.