Can you think of an example in which your inability to focus or think clearly adversely affected your life? If you normally focus on the negative during stressful times, it may surprise you to know that you have a choice. Skillfully using the mind’s faculty of attention can not only make life more tolerable, but also enhance it with greater joy, meaning, and hope.
One wonderful illustration of the power of attention can be found in the life of the brilliant mathematician and economist John Nash, whose struggles were chronicled in the film A Beautiful Mind (Goldsman and Nasara 2001). Nash was tormented by delusions that were so real that they skewed his reality and made daily living extremely hard. Eventually, he came to recognize that his mind was not always playing fair, because it often depicted illusion—actually, delusion—as fact. Near the end of the film, Nash is asked if the imaginary individuals who were part of his psyche are still with him. Nash pauses and then wisely answers that although he still sees these individuals, he chooses to ignore them. In his own way, Nash learned the essential lesson that thoughts in the mind—even the most compelling and persistent ones—are not necessarily truth. While John Nash’s story is an extreme one, it points out what can happen when you take your own thoughts too seriously.
The thing is, we all have the tendency to take our thoughts more seriously than we would the thoughts of another because they come from within our own heads! While this is a natural tendency, it doesn’t need to be an enduring one.
Are you ready to explore you own inner world of thoughts? As you take on the experiences that follow, keep in mind that your thoughts are not necessarily facts—no matter how critical the thoughts might be. You can observe them in a neutral way, just as a detective looks for clues.
What’s Rattling Around in There?
The good news is that your brain is already wired to attain mindful awareness. This ability to know what you are thinking and feeling is centered in the part of the brain located just behind your forehead and eyes—known as the prefrontal cortex. When you align your awareness, you will be activating and lighting up the circuits, the easier it becomes to notice thoughts in a more neutral and impartial way so that you can examine them more easily.
Let’s do a short practice to begin training and taming your mind’s attention. I like to call this “training the puppy mind,” because the mind is like an untrained puppy with its favorite toys that it likes to grab onto and vigorously shake, and that it never tires of running after. It takes a lot of training and consistency to teach a puppy to come when you call its name, as well as to get it to sit and heel at your side as you walk. This takes many repetitions and a lot of time. So, too, with puppy mind.
Practice: Training the Puppy Mind
For the next three minutes, get up and walk around the room or space that you are in. Do this without any particularly goal in mind. Go wherever or do whatever attracts your attention. If you need to attend to a task you’ve been thinking about, go and do that. When time is up, come back to the book, with a pad of paper and a pencil.
Congratulations on letting your puppy mind wander free. Now, using the pad of paper, try to track all the places your puppy mind visited when you let it run free for those three minutes.
Write down as many thoughts as you can recall. Don’t worry if there are some (or many) that you can’t quite put your finger on. Thoughts often fall into the following categories. Use this list to jog your memory of thoughts you engaged in over those three minutes:
- Thoughts about the future
- Thoughts or memories related to the past
- Thoughts about potential conversations with others
- Thoughts related to physical sensations, such as hunger, craving, pain and so on
- Fantasies that provide a feeling of pleasure or escape
Reflections on Training the Puppy Mind
What was it like to try to pinpoint all the thoughts that you have bouncing around in your head? Don’t judge yourself harshly if you couldn’t remember all your thoughts. Also, don’t be critical if your thoughts were not what you thought or hoped they would be. Just know that as you move forward, you will become more proficient at recognizing your thoughts, as well as determining what you would like your well-trained mental puppy to pay attention to. Congratulations on taking this important first step!