Come to think of it, I find it mind-boggling that we waste much of our mental energy chasing the ghosts of thoughts that have no bearing on anything at all. I feel that there’s something about human biology that primes us for excessive thinking. Meditation slows you down, mindfulness elevates your consciousness, spirituality makes you more conscientious but in spite of all that, unwarranted thoughts seem to have the master key. You can lock your room however much you like, one tap of the card and they are in. These uninvited guests get drunk, loiter about till late and leave your room in a mess. And when they can’t get in because you have the deadbolt secured from the inside, they still disturb you by knocking on your door incessantly, forcing you to pay attention.
Leave yourself alone and the first thing that happens within a span of a few minutes is that you find yourself thinking. And usually, not just any thoughts but those of self-reflection or what others might be saying or thinking about you, or why such-and-such person is like that with you, or why your life couldn’t be better and all that. Most thoughts will have other people but nearly all thoughts will have ‘you’. You thought you’d enjoy the solitude and silence but it’s not to be. When doing nothing, an untamed mind turns to negative, hopeless, pessimistic, or vain thoughts. It happens to the best of us in varying intensity and frequency.
Recently, I chanced upon this interesting research that said that when our brain is free from external demands on attention, the medial prefrontal cortex gets activated by default. This region is responsible for self-reflection and thinking about ourselves. The study concluded that we are predisposed to think about ourselves. Not just selfishly but reflectively too. It’s no wonder then that we suffer from the endowment effect (what I have is of greater value even if another person possesses the exact same thing. Or that I’m better, unique, compared to others. Or, my experiences are more intense and powerful, etc.), or we find it hard to be unconditionally humble or that most of us believe that the world is thinking about us.
The focus of this post is not to drown you in the jargon (besides, I’m not a researcher or neurologist), instead, it is to share with you a powerful method to master the art of directing or lifting your attention.
1. I want to focus but can’t overcome distractions (Directing your attention)
Much has been talked and written about it. In fact, this topic has been beaten to a pulp with everyone having an opinion on it. It’s what many of us complain about, certainly most young people. I want to study but can’t stay away from the phone. I am here to write a report but off I go to YouTube or something like that. I should be working but I can’t stop checking my email every few minutes and a myriad of issues like that. It’s our story. A ton of motivation, discipline, mindfulness, resolve, willpower, and a million other things are required to always be focused. Everyone’s distracted at some point and everyone procrastinates.
2. I don’t want to focus on these thoughts but they just don’t leave me (Lifting your attention)
This is an even more pressing issue, I feel. Most of us take up meditation hoping we’ll become calmer, smarter, and more Buddha-like. But, one complaint I hear all the time is that I don’t want to think negative or bad thoughts, and yet I still think these things. Why? I don’t want to pay attention to the demons of my past but they don’t leave me. I want to forgive a certain person but their thought derails me. I don’t want to worry about what people are saying about me but I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. How do I get past negative thoughts or feelings of self-absorption? As I mentioned earlier, for good or bad, we are born that way.
There is hope, though.
To direct your attention so you may overcome distractions, you can ask yourself two simple questions: one, what am I doing right now, and two, what should I be doing right now? It will bring your mind back to the present moment. It’s simple but it works.
My focus today, however, is on the second kind of problem. That is, you want to distract your mind and get off the current disturbing train of thought, but the engine is showing no signs of stopping. You are pulling the chain of mindfulness in vain. The solution I am going to share with you is an Om-Swami-original. As follows:
What would I be thinking about right now if I wasn’t thinking about what I had been?
I can’t even begin to stress how powerful this simple method is. Try it and see if it works for you. The next time you are disturbed over something or find yourself negatively thinking about someone, just ask yourself, “What would I be thinking about if I wasn’t thinking about this person/incident/thing currently? What else could I think about right now?” Something amazing will happen. The power of the negative thoughts will diminish almost instantly. Your beautiful mind will start coming up with answers and positive things to think about.
The fundamental difference between a positive and negative thought is the amount of energy it consumes. A positive thought will almost always energize you whereas a negative one will drain you. So when you are plagued by any disturbing thought you can’t seem to shake off, simply ask yourself, “What would I be thinking about right now if I wasn’t thinking about what I had been?”
Further, it pays to remember that we are not as important, indispensable, or significant as we believe ourselves to be. No one thinks about us as much as we think about ourselves. When this realization takes root in your consciousness, your way of life will change forever. All those years, particularly between the teens and the forties, when we wonder what others think about us, when we worry about our reputation and image, as you grow spiritually, somehow, it magically takes a back seat. You no longer spend your mental energy on deciphering what the world might be thinking about you nor do you spend your physical energy on maintaining that perfect image. It’s not that you don’t care, it’s just that you realize you need not care as much.
Mulla Nasrudin and his wife appeared in court for a divorce hearing.
“What are the grounds for your divorce?” the judge asked Mulla.
“About four acres and a nice little home,” Mulla answered.
“No, I mean, what are your relations like?”
“I have an aunt and uncle living here in town, Your Honor.”
“What the heck! I mean do you have a real grudge?”
“I’m afraid not. But, we have a carport.”
“Oh please! Is there any infidelity in your marriage?”
“Yes, both my son and daughter have stereo sets.”
Finally, in frustration, the judge asked, “Mulla, why do you want a divorce?”
“Oh, I don’t want a divorce,” Mulla said. “I’ve never wanted a divorce. My wife does. She says she can’t communicate with me!”
The nature of an internal conversation of a talkative mind is no different. We don’t have to take all that blabbering seriously, much less literally. We can’t really beat biology beyond a certain point but we can reprogram our brains for numerous other things. Being aware of what you are thinking is the first step and then mastering the art of directing or lifting your attention will make you a meditator par excellence, an awakened individual.
I feel it’s incredibly important to check and direct the flow of thoughts. For, if unchecked, these thoughts start telling us a story. That story when repeatedly parroted by the mind, becomes our life, our truth. We start believing in that story.
And, remember, whatever you believe in will have power over you.