The Mind: A Beautiful Servant, A Dangerous Master

brainDid you know that you have between 25,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day and around 85% of your thoughts are negative and around 95% are repetitive?

So basically, we all have old stories and self-limiting self-beliefs playing on repeat day after day.

The Indian guru Osho was really onto something when he described the human mind as a beautiful servant but a very dangerous master. 

In my case, the thousands of daily negative and repetitive thoughts often relate to achievements (or more specifically frustrations related to achievement being difficult or slow).

I suffer from a long-held belief that my achievements provide proof that I have value.

I have come to understand that this is not an uncommon pattern for “high achievers”. It is quite easy to spend an entire lifetime being propelled forward by a urge to prove your worth through achievements. Always striving, never really feeling content with just ‘being’. Always ‘doing’.

In my mid 30’s I started to notice how this belief pattern was holding me back from living a fulfilled and happy life. Now that I am in my 40’s working full time in the corporate world with two young children, it is essential for me to continue to learn how to cultivate sustainable happiness and feelings of worthiness. I understand the strong connection between my wellbeing and the health of our family unit.

I have learnt the importance of prioritising self-care without guilt or apology.

A big part of my commitment to personal wellbeing revolves around the practices of mindfulness and an ongoing quest to understand the workings of my monkey mind.

What exactly is mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is focusing on what’s happening right now. It’s stopping to smell the roses. Mindfulness is not being mentally preoccupied about the dirty laundry, your inbox or the mistakes you made yesterday.

James Baraz described mindfulness as “simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it was different”.

Others have described Mindfulness as the ability to step behind the waterfall of our thoughts into position of observation where you can see thoughts come and go without being swept away with them.

Victor Frankl the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor famously said;

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

My quest to better understand my monkey mind has provided me with some wonderful experiences.

I have done headstands at dawn, chanted in an Ashram, done ancient shaman meditations for each chamber of my heart, listened to the Dali Lama speak, attended retreats, read dozens of books and completed Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” programme.

I am still firmly in the beginners group when it comes to mindfulness. It will take time to cultivate the skills and awareness to pull my mind out of the whitewash of long held beliefs and deeply entrenched auto-pilot reactions and into the tranquillity that sits behind the waterfall.

I have tasted just enough of the deep contentment that arises in this stillness of ‘being’ to know mindfulness it is the most important life skill I need to master.

Cultivating more awareness of my thoughts has been a big first step in loosening the grip of my monkey mind. I am starting to notice frequently reoccurring patterns of unhelpful thoughts that previously had been hidden from my conscious mind. I have also noticed that I am able to shake off negative feeling associated with “old stories” more easily by gently guiding myself back to a mindset of abundance, acceptance and gratitude.

I find it helpful to think of my brain as the hardware and my mind as the software and to recognise that I can rewrite my brain’s operating system if I can to see that the functionality is no longer serving me

Ruby Wax shares captures this concept brilliantly in her book “Sane New World – Taming The Mind”.

“The reality is that the demanding voice in our heads is not who we are, it plays a very small part in the big scheme of things. What’s really running you is a million, trillion gigabyte-powered engine room in your brain managed by your DNA (…) and not that stupid inner monologue about why you’re to fat to wear tights. If you learn how to self-regulate your moods, emotions and thoughts, and focus your mind on what you want to pay attention to rather than be dragged into distraction, you might just reach that illusion thing called happiness”

The trick is to loosen the grip of your mind just enough to see that you are in fact in its grips. To do this we must become a curious observers of our software’s wacky functionality.

The first step is just to start to notice.

For example, have you ever noticed when we experience physical pain the language we use to describe the, describes it as something separate from ourselves? We think “I have a headache”. In contrast, when we experience psychological pain we describe it as all consuming? For example we might think “I am a complete fraud” See the difference? When we think “I have a headache” we are separate from the pain but when we think “I am a complete fraud” we have become consumed by the pain.

This skill of separating from our thoughts is called cognitive defusion. When we are in a state of cognitive fusion we see thoughts as true and important, we take them seriously and give them our full attention. By contrast, when we are in a state of cognitive defusion, we see thoughts are merely words and stories passing through our heads. We understand that thoughts may or may not be true, we don’t automatically believe them and we understand that thoughts may or may not be important. We pay attention only if they are helpful.

The goal is to get to a level of awareness where you think; “I am having the thought that I am a fraud. Ah, welcome back Imposter Syndrome, my old friend. Now, please be quiet, I am working on something important”.

With practice, patience and a spirit of playful curiosity I am getting better of noticing when I have been in the grips of unhelpful thoughts and from that perspective, I have freedom to decide that perhaps it is time for a operating system upgrade.

Want to learn more?

If you are curious to learn more about mindfulness there are many great resources available.

Here is a link to a very comprehensive Waking Up podcast (episode #111). In this episode Sam Harris speaks with Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson about the current scientific understanding of meditation and mindfulness practices. They speak about the history of introspection in eastern and western cultures, the difference between altered states and altered traits, an alternate conception of mental health, “meta-awareness,” the relationship between mindfulness and “flow,” the difference between pain and suffering, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and other topics.

There are also a number of App’s that can help you create the habit of weaving mindfulness practices into your day. My personal favourite is Insight Timer, home to more than 3,400,000 meditators and is rated the top free meditation app on the Android and iOS stores.

Mrs Mindfulness list of book recommendations is also really great place to start!

 

 

 

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