It’s that moment when you’re sitting on the train, looking out the window, and you drift off with your thoughts. It also happens sometimes at work when you’re staring at your screen, and your thoughts take over and carry you away. This happens to all of us in different situations and the duration varies: this is the infamous “thought carousel”.
Some people use their imagination to envision their deepest wishes, others relive past situations, and some people go through their to-do list for the day in their heads. The fact is, we all have unique thought patterns – it’s part of being human.
Being with your own thoughts takes a lot of effort and isn’t easy at all. The concept of mindfulness can help you live in the moment and be more consciously aware of your thoughts. Some of you may say, “Mindfulness is just for esoterics who’ve lost touch with reality”. This is just one of the many prejudices that has tainted mindfulness over time.
In this article, we will try to address some of these prejudices and find out why mindfulness is not a way to escape reality, but rather a method that can help you live in peace with your thoughts – and to keep this peace in all the situations that life throws at us.
Study proves: rather electric shocks than sitting with your own thoughts
What many of us probably don’t suspect is that most people are not happy with the thoughts that are circling in their own heads. What would you say if we told you that there are actually people who would rather undergo electric shocks than sit with their own thoughts? We admit that this does sound quite strange, but it was proven by researchers some time ago.
At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a team of researchers conducted an extraordinary study on the subject of thought. They took volunteers into a sparsely furnished room and asked them to hand in their mobile phones, pens and pencils, or any books they may have, to avoid being distracted. The participants were then asked to sit in a chair for between 6 and 15 minutes and to observe their own thoughts.
The participants then had to rate their level of enjoyment during this activity – on a scale of 1 to 10. More than 50 percent said they didn’t feel a sense of joy and that it was difficult for them to focus mentally.
The researchers then moved this experiment to the subjects’ homes to see if it would make a difference to the results. But even here, the subjects felt medium to moderate joy while sitting with their thoughts, and they became increasingly bored during the activity. Most of the subjects said they enjoyed listening to music or reading a book much more than observing their thoughts.
The research team then decided to go one step further: They moved the participants back to the room in the laboratory for 15 minutes – however, they were now equipped with a button that they could press to give themselves an electric shock. Although all the participants stated beforehand that they would even pay money to avoid receiving electric shocks, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women pressed the button and gave themselves an electric shock instead of sitting with their thoughts – effectively for the “entertainment factor”, so to speak.
“We didn’t think it would be so difficult for people to busy themselves with their thoughts,” says the lead psychologist Timothy Wilson. “We have this amazing mind that is filled with memories and we can even use our imagination to create fantasies and stories. We really thought that the subjects would enjoy the experiment”.
Solving problems with distraction: when running away from them just isn’t cutting it anymore
The study may frighten you at first, but this is a topic that is more important today than ever before. In the fast-paced times we live in, we hardly have any time to turn inwards and just observe what’s happening inside and around us.
If we don’t consciously afford ourselves some downtime, we’re almost always busy doing something or reacting to our surroundings. But this is not surprising. After all, the plethora of distractions is greater than ever.
Being “here and now” gets boring quickly and seems almost old-fashioned. From Instagram and Netflix, to watching TV, listening to music, or reading a book – the medley of distractions is vast.
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t avoid our thoughts, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
In fact, the opposite is true: the more we fight our own thoughts, the more space they will take up in our body and mind – until the psychological strain becomes so great that we have no choice but to look.
Mindfulness miracle cure: where does a conscious life start?
Many people who’ve already dealt with serious issues like depression, anxiety, or burnout found relief in practising mindfulness and a new way of shaping their lives.
But you don’t have to wait until the strain is no longer bearable to turn to mindfulness; above all, it is a method or concept that has a preventive effect and can be easily integrated into your daily routine in order to achieve a balanced and conscious life.
Right, only one question remains: Where do you start? Mindfulness is often seen as this complex and highly abstract concept that can only be integrated with a lot of tenacity, discipline, time, and practice.
Children are the best teachers of mindfulness
The good news: mindfulness is enshrined in every human being. Humans have an innate ability to be fully focused on what they’re doing instead of being distracted by external circumstances, the past, or the future.
To understand the concept of mindfulness, all you have to do is simply observe children: do you remember what it was like to play outside and forget all about the time, until your parents had to call you or even come and get you? That’s exactly what mindfulness is: being completely in the moment with the task at hand. That may sound rather trivial, but from our own experiences we all know how difficult this can be.
Thoughts of the past or the future get entangled too quickly and the mind takes over. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in a vortex of thoughts, one which we often struggle to get out of. This spiral frequently results in fears, worries, or panic arising.
“Mindfulness is only for esoterics and religious nuts”
Particularly over the last few years, the concept of mindfulness has garnered a lot of interest and has often been misused and over-complicated. This has also paved the way for many prejudices:
- “Mindfulness is only for esoterics who’ve lost touch with reality.”
- “Mindfulness is another self-optimisation tool.”
- “Mastering mindfulness is a laborious task.”
- “You have to sit cross-legged and meditate to be mindful.”
- “You need complete silence to practise mindfulness.”
- “You need a lot of time to live a mindful life.”
- “You have to be a Buddhist to live mindfully.”
These are just some of the prejudices surrounding mindfulness. And we don’t even want to deny it… there’s definitely some truth to a couple of these statements.
The idea of mindfulness is used by many people, just like yoga and meditation, to constantly strive for self-optimisation of their actual state, thereby escaping the current moment. In technical jargon, this is also called “spiritual bypassing”.
It describes the tendency to use certain practices to escape your shadow side and emotional wounds, instead of facing them and being present with them.
Let’s be clear here: being mindful doesn’t mean “dreaming away” or escaping difficult situations or phases in life.
It’s about recognising everything that comes up and experiencing it consciously. Of course, deeply traumatic experiences cannot be healed by this alone; they require further professional help. But mindfulness can be an excellent support tool in this regard.
The best thing about it is that you don’t need a lot to practise mindfulness: openness, willingness, and the ability to stick with it are the key ingredients for a mindful life.
Goodbye autopilot: when you recognise your own patterns
When we are mindful with ourselves and our environment, we stay present with our thoughts and really feel them instead of avoiding or covering them up.
Mindfulness means consciously being aware of ourselves in every moment, without wanting to change the status quo. When we feel the desire to want to change our current state, we reject a part of ourselves. As a result, we begin to fragment ourselves into parts that we rate as “good” and “less good” – and that’s exactly what triggers psychological stress and strain. The reason for this is that we suddenly no longer feel like a whole being, but rather dismembered, and try to somehow keep all the parts together.
For example, let’s say we get a call from a good friend who’s obviously angry at us and blaming us for something. In situations like this, our stomach often tightens, we get offended, and fire back as soon as we are attacked. Psychologically, we fall back on patterns that we relied on as children to survive.
We become victims of our own emotions, our conditioned behaviours, and switch to “reaction mode”, instead of consciously perceiving the feeling, communicating it, and sitting down with it.
Mindfulness means feeling the anger bubbling inside of you and accepting it without trying to fight it, thus falling back into old reaction patterns. In moments like this, we usually want to create a new reality and defend our ego at all costs, instead of accepting what’s happening in front of us and what the situation is triggering in us.
You can practice when you’re standing at the cash register and you impatiently start tapping your foot. Or if the meeting you’re in is running late again. How would it make you feel if you managed to be mindful and present the next time someone criticises you or tells you something you don’t want to hear? Where do you usually feel the criticism: in your chest, in your head, or in your stomach?
These small examples alone show you that mindfulness can not only be enjoyed during meditation, but in every moment of your life.
Regular meditations or mindfulness exercises can, of course, help you to stay conscious of precisely these situations, and to observe instead of falling into the reaction pattern. But the absolute best moments to practise mindfulness are all the moments of your life – especially the challenging ones.
Exercise: every moment is a chance to start a mindful life
Before we let you go, we’d love to give you a little exercise for your daily routine so that you can start inviting more mindfulness into your life right away.
Every moment in your everyday life is another opportunity to familiarise yourself with the concept of mindfulness. If you’d like to start immediately, you can choose a moment today or tomorrow, in which you consciously practise mindfulness.
To start off, it may be better not to select a conflict situation, but rather something that you do unconsciously every day – like going shopping, walking to work, or making dinner.
This time, try to observe everything precisely:
- How does the ground feel when you go for a walk?
- What types of birds can you see in the trees?
- What do the spices smell like?
- What do the ingredients taste like?
- What kind of music is playing in the store?
- What are the people in your environment like?
Also make sure to consciously observe your thoughts without getting bogged down in details. Try to consciously observe what you are thinking, feeling, smelling, tasting, and what connection you feel to other people, animals, or food.
You’ll find that it’s not that easy to stay present with the thing you’re observing, without getting caught up in your own mind and thoughts. Please be patient with yourself, as practising mindfulness takes time, continuity, and compassion. It won’t work overnight, but it gets much easier over time – we promise!
In his book “Freedom from the Known”, Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher, writes the following about mindfulness:
“I was once travelling in a car in India. A chauffeur was driving the car and I was sitting next to him. Three gentlemen were discussing the topic of awareness very eagerly and were asking questions about it. At that moment, the driver unfortunately looked away from the road and ran over a goat, and the three gentlemen were still discussing awareness. They hadn’t noticed at all that they had run over a goat. When this lack of mindfulness was pointed out to the gentlemen, who were trying so diligently to be mindful, they were very surprised.”
And what does mindfulness look like in your life?
We hope that we’ve been able to inspire you with this article to see mindfulness from a new perspective – to move away from the many prejudices and misunderstood beliefs.
On out Humanoo app, you will find mindfulness exercises and sessions to help facilitate you dive into the topic and motivate you to get going.
Mindfulness is one of the most beautiful gifts that we can give our body and mind, as well as other people and living beings.
If we manage to integrate this concept into our everyday life, both our well-being and that of those around us will benefit. Seeing and enjoying the beauty of every moment will become much easier for you.
Be patient with yourself,
Your Humanoo Team