"I am a TERRIBLE mother." I'd just gotten frustrated and yelled at my preschooler. Of course THAT thought comes to mind.
She's crying. I'm feeling like crap. Why had I yelled again?
I had two choices here. I go with that thought of "I am a terrible mother."
Or I could notice the the thought: "I am a having a thought that I'm a terrible mother."
One choice subsumes me in shame and self-loathing. The other notices the thought and moves on.
Which choice do you think would be more helpful to myself and my daughter?
What are you thinking?
There is a problem with our thoughts. Our capacity to reason is essential. And boy, oh boy, do we want to model it for our kids!
But there is a problem. It is not with the thinking, but associating ourselves with our thinking. We believe our thoughts.
Whatever thoughts float through our heads, we take it as Truth with a capital "T." In reality, our thoughts are just thoughts, nothing more.
Thoughts distort reality
We don't see how they distort reality and create suffering. Thoughts are not real, they are our stories about reality.
Take my "I am not a good mother" thought. Is that really the whole story? What are the criteria? Would a terrible mother regret yelling? In reality, I did something I regretted. I'd made a mistake and could begin again.
It's an example of how thoughts about ourselves can create a lot of suffering. We think, "I'm so stupid," or "I can't do that," or "I'm a bad mother." But self-shaming just creates suffering. It doesn't help us improve.
Thoughts about our children create suffering. We are mentally complaining about our children - "Why does he use that whiny awful voice?". We don't see how we are mentally judging them - measuring them up to some idea of how they "should" be.
Comparison thoughts create suffering. Read a home decor magazine? Suddenly, this livingroom "should" be neater and more stylish. Our comparison thoughts don't leave any room for appreciating what is. They don't leave any room for contentment.
Women are often swimming in a sea of negative thoughts about ourselves. It's not hard to do, because we are surrounded by messages of "You're not enough. Buy X to become good enough, pretty enough, organized enough." We can see how these thoughts represent a distorted reality.
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
Thinking is dictated, much of the time, by our ego. That's the part of our mind that wants the survival of our individual. It is the belief in separate identity. Since the ego is that separating part of us, that survival part of us, the thoughts aren't often very generous. And that's okay. That's just how it is.
We don't have to be upset by the quality of our thoughts, but we can choose to change them.
Get objective about your thoughts.
The most fundamental step to changing these thoughts is simply seeing them. Seriously, this is life-changing stuff here.
Mindfulness is a practice in continually training our attention back to what is actually happening in the present moment.
If we are practicing mindfulness of breathing, we choose to keep bringing our attention back to the feeling of breathing. This means that again and again (and again and again and again...), we notice that we're wrapped up in thinking, and come back to attention on the breath.
Mindfulness training helps you gain some distance from thoughts that seem to grab at you and take you away from the present moment.
And because we're less easily "pulled down the rabbit hole" of our thinking, we experience less stress, less anxiety, and more calm, peace and ease.
Are you ready to try? Getting objective about your thoughts will change your life.
You can get some real-world practice with the support of others in my free virtual mindfulness retreat. And you can try it right here and now:
Sit up tall. Begin by moving your attention onto the process of breathing. Simply observe each breath as it happens. Focus on the rise and fall of your chest or belly, or on the sensation of the breath at the nostrils. Really feel what it is like to breathe. Without feeling the need to alter your breath, just observe it as it happens.
Your mind will wander. When you notice that this happens, know that this is okay. You can label it "thinking" if you like and gently bring your attention back to the breath. Labeling your thoughts and feelings as they arise helps you stay in the present moment and separate yourself from the thoughts.
To close your experience, expand your awareness out to the room for a few breaths. Wish yourself well and continue with your day.
Over time this practice gets easier, and challenging thoughts and feelings will loosen their hold over you.
How did it feel? In the comments below, share your experience!