People have been telling me for years. And they’re right, I do think too much. In the past, whenever it was pointed out to me, I felt a sense of pride because I thought thinking too much was better than thinking too little. The trick, of course, is to find the balance between the two; to know when it’s necessary to think long and hard, and when it’s better to think only a little or not at all. This post looks at awareness, mindfulness and mastery as tools to harness our thinking process, rather than allow ourselves to be governed or distracted by our thoughts.
Thinking is life’s latest evolutionary toy. Nature has been working away for billions of years, yet the human ability to think in such a conscious and intricate way has only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years. That represents a tiny fraction of the duration of life on our planet. We are just beginning to discover how it all works, so is it any wonder we don’t have a decent level of control over our thoughts?
Analogous to this is our use of the internet, which represents a similar fraction of time in relation to human existence, as conscious thought does in the history of the natural world. As with thinking, we tend not to make the best use of the internet. We do very well with both but we can do much better, because in the same way we spend too much time thinking about stuff which doesn’t matter or worrying about events which will never happen, so we spend too much time surfing aimlessly through the multitude of sites, pages, videos and opinions which can appear on our screens at the touch of a button.
Here’s what can we do about it all: awareness, mindfulness, and mastery.
Awareness helps us notice what is happening. What are you thinking right now? Where did that thought come from? Notice how little awareness you have about how and when your thoughts begin, or about just how many thoughts you have in the course of one day. Remind yourself at various times during the day to examine your thoughts. You will forget to do it, but when you remember, look more closely at what you are thinking and notice how easily you are distracted or how busy your mind is. The more aware of your thoughts you become, the more influence you will have over them.
Mindfulness allows us to remain focused on a subject of our choosing. If you are being driven half crazy by the incessant noise of your thoughts, choose a simple task, like washing the dishes, or walking, or breathing, and focus on it fully. Focus on as much detail as you can and be completely with whatever you are doing. As you do, your mind will become calmer and quieter. What joy! Alternatively, you can just drop everything for a moment.
Mastery, in the context of this post, means being able to perform tasks without having to think, because we have internalised the necessary skills to such a degree that they come naturally to us. I have a friend who is a black belt in Aikido. He explained that the goal beyond attaining the black belt is not to think about what one has learnt but simply to perform without conscious thought. Firstly, conscious thought can take too long, and secondly we may end up doubting ourselves and either delay our action or make the wrong choice. The surfing book mentioned in the previous post makes a similar point: that in order to react effectively to the whims of the ocean, one has to know already what to do.
This post is a reminder to me that there is always an optimum amount of thought for any given situation. Sometimes we need to search hard for an answer, sometimes we simply need to be more focused in our thinking, and sometimes we need to just empty our minds and trust that we have the ability to succeed. And one way to bring all these elements together is to become a master of awareness and mindfulness. That way, we do both without even thinking about it.