Your mind is lazy. Very. Lazy.
When things are predictable or set, your mind doesn’t have to expend as much energy in figuring out what to do. Mental habits allow your mind to take a break, like a night guard snoozing in a chair instead of being alert and scanning the cameras for intruders. After a while, you stop noticing all the pieces that go into your mental habit, and you are left reacting to events in a repetitive way.
If that works for you most of the time without significant distress, a mental habit can save you time and effort that you can expend elsewhere. If the opposite is true, then it might be time to investigate how your thought process was constructed so that you can break it down again.
I have been stuck thousands of times. The method below has worked for me, and I hope it will help you, too.
Step 1: Identify the thought
Pick one thought process or reaction that you want to change. If there are many thoughts jumbled together, do your best to identify the first one. If you’re not sure whether one thought precedes another, that’s OK. You might not be conscious of it right now, but it will show up as you dig deeper.
STEP 2: Relax and let go
Mental habits can be challenging to break when they stir emotions within us that we find overwhelming. Trying to push your mind to find out what is really going on can make matters worse and add to your stress. Don’t go there. Instead, we relax and let go so that we can put ourselves into an observing role instead of participating in the mental drama.
Make some time where you can be alone and listen to yourself. Some call it your intuition, gut, or your feelings. I find that they tend to “live” in my stomach. If I want to know how I’m feeling, I might also listen to feelings that in heart, throat, or head.
To get centered, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. If you need more time to relax, try to focus on your breath as it goes in and out, or in the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. When I have great difficulty in getting a break from my obsessed mind, I find using one of two mantras help for me.
The first mantra I use is Live in the body, not in the mind. As I slowly repeat this mantra, I focus on relaxing my belly and then any other place where I seem to be holding myself in. Don’t zip around your body. To be calm is to relax is to be slow and deliberate. I find that this mantra helps turn the freight train of thoughts in my brain and feel calmer.
The second mantra I use is Good thoughts, bad thoughts. They all fall down into the sea of thoughts. I can’t take credit for this mantra, however. I learned it from Maddy Klyne, one of the teachers at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center during one of their weekly Tuesday night beginners’ drop-in class. With this mantra, I try to let any other thoughts that pop up pass away, or I tell myself Thinking, thinking and then letting go of the thought.
By relaxing our inner mental chaos, we are more likely to be relaxed in our body and to see the thoughts and feelings that arise within.
step 3: observe Your Thought process
When you are ready, think of the habit or situation that you want to address. For me, it’s easiest to start thinking about the feeling that troubles me the most. I try to let my mind float with thoughts over what I felt and what happened, interchangeably. If you get stuck, you can ask yourself questions that may elicit information from your brain that may otherwise be hidden from you. Work your way backwards by asking yourself What caused this feeling? Work your way forward by asking And then what happened? Hopefully, you will not only see what you’ve been thinking and feeling, but you’ll discover new information that was not in the forefront of your consciousness like some of the other details that you mind became obsessed with.
STEP 4: Write it all down
Open your eyes. Get out your favorite writing implement and paper, and write.
The act of writing slows your thought processes down because you have to deliberately write each word down. As a result, your mind sees the progression of your thoughts more clearly. Using computer software is not as useful because our minds and our fingers are quick, maybe too quick to really notice what’s going on in our minds.
Take your time. Write it in whatever way suits you. Make a list. Use index cards. You can write in a linear way with arrows between steps and feelings. If you do this, remember to leave a lot of space between steps so that you can add things in as you become aware of them. You might be surprised at how effective just this one method is.
step 5: Let it stew
You’ve chosen your thought. You relaxed and let go. You wrote it all down.
Next our minds need time to absorb new information. In some cases, seeing the thought pattern in its entirety is enough to help you understand why you do the things you’ve done, why you have felt the way you did, and to break the pattern.
Most likely, your mind needs time to absorb and integrate the new information.
Step 6: Make A new choice
When the old thought or situation comes up again (and come up again it will), you will recognize it when it occurs. Then, you can choose what you want to do in the moment. It will be all up to you in a way that did not exist before you took the time to investigate your mental habit.
Now that you’ve been able to break your mental habit, your lazy mind becomes your active mind. New actions mean a new course for your life ahead. Even if nothing changes outwardly, inwardly you will be born again.
step 7: Remember to be happy
You cannot have two thoughts or feelings at the same time. Sometimes it may feel like it. What really happens is that we cycle so quickly through a number of thoughts and feelings that it seems like they are occupying the same mental, physical, emotional, and psychological space.
When you are stricken with the same old negative emotion or thought, choose to focus instead on what it feels like to be happy. Happiness comes from within. So often we let ourselves feel that what the other did is what caused the feelings that arise in us. But that’s misleading. No one lives inside us but us. No one can feel what we feel but us. No one can make us feel but us.
Therefore, we can, at least briefly, turn our attention to something more positive. Stop and smell a rose. Remember how your first kiss felt. How wearing an outfit made you feel confident and strong.
If focusing on the positive isn’t your thing, then spend time on a hobby, help a child with homework, go volunteering, or exercise. The point is to let your mind be busy with something else, anything else, but the thought that gets you nowhere.