With mindfulness practice, you eventually tame, calm, and befriend that bucking bronco of a mind, gently taking the reins and steering it where you want. If you whip or treat a horse cruelly it will most likely throw you into the dirt and probably stamp on you for good measure. If you're gentle with it, soothing it, giving it a little stroke, it will eventually calm down. Same with the mind; if you're self-critical and demanding, not only do you suffer but now you admonish yourself for your suffering with, "I shouldn't feel this way. I'm making myself feel this way because I'm such a ... [fill in the blank but make it nasty]." Instead, if you are patient and gentle with yourself, it eventually settles down, and you experience something we call peace and, at best, happiness. (For those of us who have been bullies to ourselves for most of our lives, this is a big challenge.)
It's similar to when you have an argument with someone. If you ratchet up the aggression, the conflict continues; if one person begins to show empathy and kindness, it dies down from a gale force to a gust of wind.
This does not mean you sit there like a lump of tofu; it means that when your mind does what all of our minds do, which is change -- change constantly and never stop chattering -- you don't fight it but rather understand and accept it for what it is.
When you stand back and just watch your thoughts and feelings, you find yourself less scattered, more anchored, and clearer thinking. Negative thoughts aren't bad in themselves, but when we ruminate and dwell on them we're giving ourselves a double whammy. I'm thinking, "I'm a failure, therefore I must be a failure to think this way." When you feel you're knee-deep in a negative mood, it's not the mood that causes the ultimate suffering; it's how you react to it. So not only did an arrow shoot you, which hurts, you send in another one to punish yourself for hurting. That second arrow you shoot at yourself for feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed is by far the most agonizing. Pain exists, but suffering is optional.
Mindfulness is not complicated. It's something we can all do: notice things. By just standing back and being aware, you immediately gain a new view of your inner and outer world along with internal changes in the brain. By sharpening your focus on what's happening right now, you start to notice that thoughts aren't facts; they're constantly changing patterns. They come and go, transform, disperse, and dissolve. Finally you can experience them, not as something solid or threatening but as ambient background noise.
Your thoughts are not who you are. They're habitual patterns in the mind, nothing more, and as soon as you see them that way, they lose their sting. I think of them as the sound of a radio in another room; I can pay attention, sing along with them if I want and also choose to ignore them. Thoughts are not your master; they are your servant.
Reprinted from Sane New World by Ruby Wax by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2013 by Ruby Wax.