It has been said that fish don’t know they are swimming in water; they just swim in it naturally unaware of that fact. It has also been said that our thoughts are our water. Most of us are swimming in our thoughts and we are hardly even aware of it. It is our natural state. Would you agree that this is the case for you?
The good news is that we can learn to notice our thoughts and recognize when we are actually ruminating and getting deeper in the rabbit hole or the OCD cycle (if you struggle with OCD). Keep in mind that recognizing and acknowledging one’s thoughts for what they are –thoughts– is not the same as ignoring, suppressing, or resisting them.
Have you ever had the experience of being at the movie theatre or a special event and you needed to use the bathroom but didn’t want to miss the most important part of the event? What happened when you said, “I won’t think about it. I can hold it! I won’t think about it. I can hold it.”? In order to not think about it, did you have to think about it? Was it effective? Did you enjoy the event as you tried to suppress the thoughts, sensations and urges?
Your mind and others may insist that you can stop, ignore, suppress, or resist your thoughts and other internal experiences (e.g., feelings, sensations, and urges). That counsel may provide short-term relief, but is it effective in the long run?
Surely, it’s not fun to experience unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations. However, we need to remember that they are part of our human experience. And when we start pushing them away so we won’t think or feel them, that’s the moment we get stuck, because what we resist, persists.
Some people may say, “I actually like to think and review my thoughts. I want to review what I should’ve done and said. Looking back may help me!” Sure, this is the false sense of control we addressed in the previous article on rumination. You may believe this activity will work out. Next time you start ruminating, notice where you end up and how you feel afterwards. Most importantly, were you aware of this activity going on in your mind?
You don’t need to swim in your thoughts. You can enhance your awareness. Just remember, it’s a process. Below you’ll find a simple practice that can help you.
Noticing an object with three senses
Look around the room where you are, and choose an object that can be easily held with one hand. Don’t think about it too long, just choose a random item by your desk, shelf, or table.
Read the instructions below before doing this practice, then set the timer for three minutes. Hold the object and close your eyes. Take about a minute to notice it with your sense of touch. Even though you are familiar with it, for the next three minutes be curious about it. Notice if you can experience it differently.
Can you experience the details of it with your eyes closed? Notice the roughness or smoothness of this item. Notice it’s temperature and anything else you may discover as you touch it in different ways. For example notice the difference when you place it in the center of your palm, and on the other side of your hand. Touch it with your pinky and then your thumb.
As you explore this object with your eyes closed, be attentive to when your mind distracts you. Notice if it leads you to ruminating and getting stuck. Your mind will distract you for sure. No worries. That’s what minds do. When that happens, acknowledge the thought by simply saying “yes” to it, and gently return to exploring the item with your sense of touch while closing your eyes.
After about a minute, continue with your eyes closed, and notice the sounds the item emits when you tap it with different fingers or against any surface. When your attention drifts, acknowledge the thoughts by saying “yes” to the mind and gently return to noticing the object.
Then softly open your eyes and contemplate its shape, color, and size. Do you notice anything else? Recognize when your attention takes you elsewhere, then gently bring it back to the object. Continue noticing the details until the timer goes off.
Don’t misunderstand this exercise. It’s not a distraction. Making a conscious effort to notice anything with your three senses will enhance your ability to become aware when any internal experience (e.g., thought, memory, judgment, feeling, sensation, and urge) leads you to ruminating. Remember to acknowledge those internal experiences (e.g., “Yes. I hear you mind.” “I am noticing that thought. “I am noticing that urge.” I’m noticing the feeling. Thank you, mind.”).
In your everyday life, when you get distracted by unhelpful internal experiences, you will be able to recognize that you do have a choice on where to focus. You can decide in that moment to be here with what matters really matters or there (ruminating and getting stuck).
You can enhance your awareness and no longer swim in your thoughts and other internal experiences. Acknowledge them and choose to live a vital life!