It started in 1979 when I found a Carlos Castaneda book on my dads bedside table. It said that the real world lies beyond thoughts in a state of inner silence and that the ‘inner dialogue’ has to be stopped. I set about the task to stop my thoughts and reach inner stillness. I failed. I gave up.
I now know why. It’s not about stopping thoughts at all. They can’t be just stopped. They are continuous, random and stopping them using willpower doesn’t work.
Then in 2001 while living in South Africa I was reading books about the necessity of purifying your thoughts. So I’d watch my thoughts everywhere I went – shopping, in the bathroom and out for walks. I tried to have ‘good’ thoughts, and to banish ‘bad’ thoughts. The random thoughts, some of them nasty, crazy and ‘bad’, continued. I failed. I gave up.
I now know that I don’t have to be responsible for every thought that passes through my mind. If an unkind thought appears about a big fat bum in front of me in the checkout queue I don’t have to feel guilty or conclude I’m a nasty person. I can just notice it and let it pass. ‘Oh there’s a nasty one’.
In 2012 I started going on weekend mindfulness courses at a Tibetan Monastery. They taught me a better way of dealing with thoughts. To sit back and watch them arise and disappear without getting involved with their content. Like clouds passing in the sky. Then came a mindfulness and self compassion conference with Paul Gilbert and others. Another important tool. Learning to love myself. Before that I was moving forward with the breaks on.
At the time I was undergoing a tax investigation and was in a heightened state of anxiety, so much so that my thoughts were keeping me awake at night with the fear generated from imaging catastrophe.
Helped along by a good measure of desperation, I learned to recognise the scary thoughts. ‘Oh there’s that scary thought, thanks but not right now’. I let it go. I’d short circuit thoughts by recognising them and giving them a name. Without letting them go into a big story and drama and then full on threat alert with its sleep depriving cortisol and adrenaline releases. I resumed sleeping properly.
I’ve been doing that ever since. And failing very often. Every day I fail and get involved with the content without noticing. Each time I just return to witnessing my thoughts when I notice I’ve lost myself in them. I find some thoughts sticky and hard to resist at times. I accept I’m a beginner learning how to play tennis or some skill. Every day I practise. Small steps I’m happy with.
I use my breathe to be present, and breathe deeply. Not from the throat like I do when I’m anxious. From my heart or lower down the diaphragm.
Being a witness helps me lean back into the seat of the saddle of myself, and to not mistake the thoughts as ‘me’. If I can watch them, then I’m the watcher and not the content of my brain and the emotions that evokes.
Sitting on a cushion doing mindfulness doesn’t suit me so I use a different method. I practise mindfulness going about everyday life, all day every day. It’s similar to the Dzogchen Buddhism method and involves becoming aware for short moments many times a day. They say that through this conscious awareness becomes continuous.
The glimpses of freedom from anxiety, sadness and anger that come are well worth the effort and application. The sense of lightness is like the feeling of being in love. With life rather than a somebody. I’m convinced it’s the same feeling. It feels like an alignment inside and outside. Exhilarated harmony, and a sense of being connected and at one with everything.