Written by: Jenny Smith
Negative thinking is something that most if not everybody struggles with. Unless we get to know how our minds work, we can be at the mercy of them and their tendency to rush anxiously into the future or hang on miserably to the past! Negative thoughts can drain our energy, spoil our days and put blocks around us in our relationships, they can shift how we feel about things and create difficulty when really there isn’t any. Given all these challenging side affects of negative thinking, it is worth considering what would help you make the shift away from negative thinking towards a more spacious and open mind.
What is negative thinking?
An important thing to realise is that you are not your thoughts. If you have never considered this before and the idea feels a bit strange, try the following to see if it makes sense to you. Ask yourself, ‘if I am my thoughts, who is it that is thinking them, and who is it that is aware of them being thought?’ You don’t need to come up with any particular answer, it is just something to reflect on overtime that will hopefully point you to some awareness that there is more going on in you than the process of thinking.
Many people spend their whole day caught up in their thoughts, barely noticing what is going on around them, the taste of the food that they are eating or the sounds and smells of nature as they walk from one appointment to another. If all the thoughts that they were having were positive then it may not be such a big deal, however the average mind does not focus on what is going well and what exciting things are happening, the average mind focuses on how badly things are going and what disasters are ahead which in turn cause physical and emotional discomfort.
What can you do to be more positive?
If you can open to the possibility that you are not your thoughts you create a bit of space around this frantic mental activity. This space is often called the witness, observer or awareness, and is the part of you that is able to neutrally observe what is happening without getting caught up in it. Practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi etc all strengthen the connection with our awareness and help people to drop more deeply into the present moment.
Our attention and our thoughts feel like one and the same because most of us never question the belief that we are our thoughts and don’t ever try to to focus on anything else for very long. However our attention or awareness as it is sometimes called is something that is very flexible and that we have free will over how it can be used. Try this now, decide to put your attention on the next three breaths that you take, count the in breath and then count the out breath and see if you are able to focus on your breathing for this amount of time. You may find that your attention does wander back to thoughts but if you keep trying you will eventually be able to keep your attention on your breathing.
When people first start exploring the difference between their attention and their thinking it can be quite overwhelming to realise just how much time and energy is taken up and frankly wasted in meaningless mental chatter! Try not to give yourself a hard time if you have this realisation, it’s extremely common! Once you have opened to the realisation that there is more to you than your busy mind it can become quite fun to see how long you are able to let go of the identification as ‘a thinker’ for. Try choosing an activity that you do each day like brushing your teeth and see if you can spend that bit of time just focused on the activity rather than on what is going on in your head. Bring your attention to how the brushing feels in your mount, the different sensations, the sounds of the water and the taste of the toothpaste. Or choose a time when you are walking somewhere and instead of walking along ruminating about the last conversation you had with your friend, make a decision to place your attention on the sensory experience of the walk, the sights, sounds and smells.
Practice makes perfect
Over time if you keep practicing like this you will build up your ability to stay in your witness. If you want to take it further you could do a Mindfulness course or sign up for some yoga. Sometimes people stay very mentally busy as a way of avoiding difficult feelings that are going on underneath. If this feels true for you it might help to find someone to talk to about what you are feeling like a trusted friend or a counsellor. Be gentle with yourself as you explore making these changes and celebrate yourself each time you are able to stay longer in the present moment.