The mind is an amazing tool - it enables you to solve problems, dream, visualize, invent, organize, analyze and so much more. But I feel like it needed to come with instructions on how to use it mindfully and not get ruled by its autopilot mode.
Let’s jump into the mind on autopilot for a moment:
Oh, I must remember to buy coffee on the way home… he looks kind of funny when he runs… I feel like chocolate… hmm, what am I going to do with the dropbox subscription, should I keep it another year? It’s kind of expensive but very handy. Jeez, I need to sort my photos on my phone soon, I’ve said that to myself the last year and a half… I wonder how many photos from the Camino are still on there? I wonder how Tomas is doing? I haven’t heard from him for a while. Oh look at that tree; it’s gorgeous, I wonder which dates I should set for the coming workshops, did I make a mistake of turning that offer down the other day?... I wish I had asked something differently first… Next time I’m going to tell him…
You get the gist.
Then let’s entertain ourselves with the unleashed smartphone:
One new Instagram message: Vanessa reacted to your story, On WhatsApp: How about Saturday? On WhatsApp: Smiley, smiley, wink smiley, On Messenger: Hey Luise… While listening to a podcast clicking on a hyperlink to Daniel Kahneman's website in the show notes… Looking at website “Oh that guy, I’ve seen him before. Huh, he wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, his name kind of reminds me of Dan Siegel”, googling Dan Siegel,” ah yes he’s the one who writes about mindfulness and the brain”… Didn’t I see a book I wanted to read on Instragram?” Scrolling through the Instagram feed. One new like on Facebook, Instagram notification: Treesisters_official mentioned you in a comment…
See the similarities?
What happens in both cases is that our attention gets pulled from one thing to another without us having any control.
If we just let the mind run on autopilot and don't learn to see it for what it is, we get pulled around by old stories, worries, judgments, memories and more. Emotions get triggered by thoughts, and the emotions trigger new thoughts and so there we are stuck in a loop of endless reactivity.
In both cases, it’s about us cultivating awareness in order to consciously make it a tool instead of being a slave to it.
For the smartphone, a very first basic step is to turn off all the notifications in order to choose more intentionally when you want to engage. And if you know you have a tendency to get lost in scrolling and social media (who doesn’t!) then set a timer whenever you’re about to entertain yourself so you don’t spend endless time on there.
With regards to the mind, thoughts appear automatically; it’s the function of the mind to think, however, we can actually control how much we want to engage with the thoughts that are present. We can do this by learning to meditate. There are many different meditation techniques, but the simple practice of sitting still and observing your breath enables you to start seeing the ways of the mind. You learn to step into the role of observing the mind, and when you do that you can more intentionally choose which thoughts you want to engage further with. It doesn’t mean that the mind will stop doing its thing, not at all – but you will gain the ability to distance yourself from the thoughts so they don’t drive everything you do. Also the more you practice the easier it will be to catch yourself when you do get lost in the constant stream of thinking - and that I believe is indeed one of the essential ways to find more freedom in life.
What feels most challenging for you in regards to getting stuck in your mind? I'd love to know what would be useful for you to learn - let me know in the comments below.
If you want to read more about how the mind works and get guidelines for practices then take a look at this PDF about Understanding the Mind.