Many people come into the office complaining that their heads just never stop going. They have racing thoughts, or even if their thoughts don’t feel like they are racing, people feel like they don’t stop thinking. There is always something going on inside them, usually in the form of a monologue but sometimes a tune or a song, sometimes a repetitive rhyme, sometimes the sound of another person’s voice. The main complaint is that there is no peace, no quiet.
People are less likely to be aware of internal “noise” that takes the form of images but that kind of inner activity can get in the way also. When images are overtly disturbing, then they may jump into a person’s awareness, but often we just go along in our daily lives with this inner movie playing and our inner sound track, often unrelated to each other, and we wonder why we are exhausted and why our lives don’t feel satisfying.
I suggest that all this inner activity is tiring and keeps us from living our real lives in the here and now. But how to change what’s going on inside? We have a sense that those inner activities are not ours, that we don’t have any control over them. Well, if that’s true, then who actually IS controlling what’s going on inside you? Hmm, that could be a scary question.
Well, let’s assume that it is you. What has happened is that you have learned a habit. This is a habit of mind, the continuous thinking or continuous singing or non-stop imaging. If you pay attention over time, you probably will notice that the content of those thoughts is pretty limited. You probably only have four or five themes that you harbour, maybe fewer. When I discovered the fairly boring limits of my unattended thinking patterns, I was shocked and dismayed….so this is what I was spending my life energy on! My inner life was pretty dull, repetitive, and wasn’t doing much to enhance my living.
Our over-active thinking, because it is a habit of mind, becomes quite comfortable and learning a new habit requires attention. But it is eminently possible to find a different habit, a different way of being in yourself. A first step can be to find the space between. By that I mean the space that is between thoughts, between images, between the discrete rush of internal stuff that sometimes threatens to ovewhelm us.
The white space on the page makes reading possible, makes pictures pop into our perception, softens the gaze and allows us to relax a bit as we are reading. Similarly, the space between our thoughts can help us to notice them, as well as to find peace between them. But where do you find this space? For some people, there is space in the mind upon waking in the morning. Just notice as you are waking up if there is spaciousness and openness in your mind. Notice that and then look for it during the day. Another place to find it is when you notice that you have had a thought and you label it: Oh, that’s a thought. Right then, right after the labeling, there is a brief moment of openness and space. If you can continue to pay attention to the spaciousness it will increase in amount.
You can also try a more formal practice of meditation or mindfulness. If you choose to sit in stillness with yourself, you thoughts will become more apparent to you. As thoughts arise, you can say with a smile, Oh, yes, there is a thought …and just let it go. If you need an image to help with that, you can imagine yourself sitting by the side of a quiet stream. As a thought arises, you can place it on a floating leaf and watch it float away down the stream. As it leaves and the image evaporates, notice the emptiness and spaciousness of your mind.
Try it and let me know what you discover.