The mind, constantly reframes what it sees to fit its perception of reality. The mind does this by focusing on the details, judging them, fitting them with past experience, anticipating how the future will be and then attaching meaning.
The whole process is run and rerun every time we do anything – with every conversation, when we read information, when we work at something or consider the future. Everything we take in shapes and changes our view of the world. It is why insights are so powerful because your whole view of something can change with a single new thought or perspective.
Our version of the world can be hugely different to someone standing next to us experiencing the same thing. It’s why police statements vary so much at the scene of an incident or crime. We experience the actual reality unfolding in front of us through the lenses of our feelings, emotions, reactions, sensations and also through the interpretation of our mind on the scene, dependent on everything that it has experienced before. And the thing is, 99.9% of the time we don’t realise that – we believe what we experience as absolute fact and reality.
Once the mind has started to construct its model of the world it is very difficult to differentiate between what is real and what you ‘think’ is real.
To add to this, the thoughts we have with an emotional charge are the ones we tend to believe the most, even if they don’t make sense. For instance, take self-criticism – when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed we only hear the inner voice that says we are not good enough and not the voice of compassion and reason. The emotion behind these thoughts can be powerful and really hard to see through or ignore.
When we are stressed, our negative thoughts can feel like the absolute truth about the world. However, they are symptoms of stress, just like you get symptoms of flu. When you can become aware that these types of thoughts are the symptoms of stress, anxiety and exhaustion you can start to get some distance from them and stop buying into them.
Thoughts come from nowhere. They come and go. But thoughts are just mental events. No matter how insistent they are or how much you identify with them, you don’t have to believe them or act on them or experience them. You may not be able to stop the thoughts from entering your head, or change what you are thinking about, but you do have a CHOICE in how you react to them. And that choice gives you freedom.
Try this meditation on sounds and thoughts to see for yourself how transient both things really are.
Settle into a comfortable position and become aware of your breath flowing in and out.
When you are ready, shift your awareness to the sounds that are present in this moment.
Without searching for sounds, let them come to you and fill your ears while simply hearing sounds near and far away.
Notice any judgments or thoughts about the sounds and let them pass away. Notice that the mind may prefer some sounds to others, might wish for different sounds. Just notice that and be with what you are hearing, whether it feels good, bad or indifferent.
Notice if you find yourself trying to identify or label the sounds and instead focus on hearing the bare sounds themselves.
Be aware that sounds arise and fade away, and notice if there are any spaces between sounds. Perhaps even marvel at your sense of hearing that allows you to experience the world through that medium – through sounds and the spaces between sounds.
When your mind wanders or fixates on a particular sound, gently return your attention to the flow of sounds occurring in the present moment.
Now follow the same process with your thoughts:
Become aware of your breath flowing in and out. Notice the body responding to the breath, the belly and chest expanding and contracting, the warmth of your breath in your nose or mouth or throat.
When you are ready, shift your awareness to the thoughts that are present in this moment. Just watch your thoughts moment by moment and let everything else be.
Without searching for thoughts, let them come to you and fill your mind. Notice how they just appear one after the other, some may feel connected and some random.
Notice any judgments or thoughts about the thoughts and let them pass away. Notice that you may prefer some thoughts to others or might wish for different thoughts. Just notice that and be with the thoughts that present themselves whether they feel good, bad or indifferent.
Notice if you find yourself trying to identify or label the thoughts and instead focus on just noticing that they are there and that they come and go.
Notice that they arise and fade away and notice if there are any spaces between the thoughts. Notice how these thoughts can affect what you are experiencing NOW in this meditation.
When your mind wanders or fixates on a particular thought, or you get sucked into your thinking and and no longer notice it, just gently return to noticing as soon as you are able to catch yourself.
Focus once more on the breath and open your eyes.
Meditation gives us the space to notice, especially to notice our thoughts and the more we notice them, the less we ‘are’ them, the less effect they have on us. The quieter it gets inside and the more space we have for joy, intuition and fresh new thinking and perspective.