Crime statistics suggest that you didn’t. We all have these automatic thoughts that pop up in our heads, such as “I’m going to scream if the other queue moves faster”. But we rarely act on them, they just come and go.
Our mind is a thought-producing machine, churning out tens of thousands of them per day. Sometimes, they are the product of deep and intelligent analysis, other times some practical stuff we want to remember or often just absurd daydreams. This is a continuous process, most of it occurs in the background, and many of these thoughts escape our attention, as we are absorbed in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.
It’s fine that thoughts about killing your neighbour or screaming in the supermarket escape our attention. But other thoughts have a more profound effect.
Do you sometimes feel that you could get more out of your life? Maybe you are secretly dreaming of something but you just can’t make it happen. Or you are suffering from the pressure of all the shoulds’ and ‘musts’ in your life, and there seems so little time for what you really value.
Sometimes, there are external obstacles that prevent you from reaching a better life: the problematic job market, a lack of time or money, or skills that you simply don’t have. Often, however, the obstacles are of a very different order. For example, the belief that what you want isn’t important. The belief that you ended up in this situation due to the choices you made and giving up what you currently have is not an option. The fear of failure, a whisper that says, ‘Don’t do it.’
These beliefs and emotions can linger in the back of your mind. Some of them may remain noticed, or you may just take them for granted. It may be time to take a good look at them.
Try out a simple mindfulness exercise. Find a time and a place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit down with your eyes closed and focus your attention on your breathing. You don’t have to breathe in a particular way, just follow the movements of the breath with interest, as if you have never experienced this before. Now, probably quite quickly, you will find that your mind gets distracted. This is perfectly fine; this is what minds do. Just take a look where your mind wanders to, and then bring your attention back to your breathing. Repeat this over and over again, each time you notice that your mind wanders away from your concentration on your breathing. Do this for as long as you want, preferably at least 15 to 20 minutes.
You might be amazed by the number of thoughts, or by their nature. This exercise is like an audit of your mind. What exactly is really going on in your head?
If you repeat this exercise regularly, you can gain insight into the patterns of your mind, how your thoughts and emotions interact and how they affect what you do, or what you don’t do.
You may discover that the thoughts that come up are just events taking place in your mind, little stories that pop up but that are not necessarily connected to reality. Thoughts are just thoughts, not facts. This can be a very liberating discovery.
And you may also discover that you have a choice: you can go along with the story created by your mind or you can create your own story. So the question is not so much what you do with the thoughts and emotions that keep you stuck. You don’t necessarily need to challenge them or replace them by more positive beliefs. You don’t have to do anything with them. The ultimate question is what you want to do despite these thoughts and emotions. They’re just thoughts, not facts.
Mindfulness meditation can teach you this. It’s fine to read an article or a book about it, but it’s better to find it out for yourself, by regularly taking some time to observe the meanderings of your mind.
Once you learn to bypass the censorship of your mind, a more daunting question can appear: what is it exactly that I want? Sometimes, it can actually be quite comfortable to feel slightly miserable and complain about your situation, without really trying to alter it. Finding out what you want to do or who you want to be can be a difficult task. There are not many people who have a very clear vision of their goals in life.
As a matter of fact, you can use the same kind of self-observation techniques to discover these goals. Observe yourself, this time not in silence but in action. When you’re busy doing things, what is it that you like doing, what are you good at? Try to see it as objectively as possible, again listening very carefully for any limiting thoughts that your mind might produce.
Just because your mind tells you that something is impossible it doesn’t mean it is. Don’t believe everything you think.