The Thinking Trap

Thinking is one of the things our minds does. It’s almost always there, in the background, chattering away. This is just what minds do. I remember when I first started a regular meditation practice about 5 years ago I thought I wasn’t getting the meditation thing – I couldn’t make my mind stop thinking. There was always a track playing in the background.

The nature of our thoughts changes on a daily basis, but often we play similar thought loops. If I consider my own common thought streams, they have similar content (especially the negative ones), including juicy topics such as being not ‘x’ enough, body image concerns, career concerns, relationship concerns.

These thoughts are interesting, in that if I start thinking ‘I am not a good enough friend’ (for example), then I may well trigger an emotion, such as feeling sad in myself. The trigger of this emotion then most often translates into another negative thought confirming my first negative thought, for example, ‘’x’ hasn’t messaged me’, which then often translates into shame or self-judgement. And so the cycle perpetuates itself.

Interestingly as humans, we have developed evolutionarily to have a negativity bias. If we think back 500,000 years ago when our day to day survival demanded on a strong sense of what was dangerous or safe, then the people at that time who stayed safe, who reproduced, were good at sensing and avoiding danger. They were good at surviving. So we are working with a 2million year old piece of brain apparatus which has evolved to look for danger and has been programmed to survive.

None of us would be here without this amazing piece of kit. And yet, in this age where there isn’t real evolutionary pressure or demand to survive (at least in significant parts of the western world) we are working with something that is prone to seeking out danger and programmed to try and keep us safe. Enter the negativity bias and the tendency we have to focus on things that are challenging.

If I have a disagreement with my partner or difficult email from a colleague my ancient brain is acting in anxious protection of my survival rather than in a more rational and considered way. And on a physiological level when we are working in survival mode our entire body chemistry and function changes.

Enter meditation, and yoga :)

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes we can notice a sensation before a thought arises, and switch up our approach at this point. But most days I’m not at these lofty heights (yet) so sometimes it’s good to learn how to approach the thoughts themselves…

The key teaching which I have received from numerous people over the last week (thanks to Tony Robbins, Eckhart Tolle, Tamara Levitt) is you are not your thoughts. I remember the first time I heard this I got really confused. But who am I then? (that’s another question for another blog post ;P). But in learning to live it a little and noticing these thoughts rather than identifying with them, I can begin to step out of the constant-fearful-thought space and into something which has a little more discretion.

One aspect of supporting the recognition and lack of attachment to thought is through slowing down. Our yoga practice can support us greatly in this; switching into more dominant parasympathetic activity through breath regulation and gentle movement. This power of the yoga asana practice to change our physiology through up-regulating our parasympathetic nervous system is unparalleled (in my humble opinion).

So we have slowed down, changed our internal physiology…now what?

In meditation we are often asked to take on the role of observing the thoughts, without identifying with them. This is something I have found very difficult over the years, but when I can do it there is such a sense of calm, even power, and so importantly, the capacity to choose which of those thoughts I listen to.

And this marries well to something our yoga practice can offer us. We are often encouraged to work with ‘intention’ in yoga. And this is not necessarily something that the teacher just fancies chatting about; on a neurobiological level the power of intention is working with our capacity for metacognition – the ability our minds have to choose what they pay attention to.

In this way we can revolutionise our reactivity to thoughts. We can literally learn to choose what we focus our attention on. And we can begin to observe these patterns and cycles and stop becoming the content of our thoughts. This gives us such a sense of peace, clarity, and space. And also saves up that reliance on our sympathetic nervous system for carrying us through day to day life.

I imagine that a world where we were operating less from a fearful-thought-identified space would be very different from the one we currently inhabit. And this taps into the power that yoga and meditation practices can have on a global level. Call it blue sky thinking, but I’m a fierce believer ;)

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