Mindfulness and the Power of Curiosity
If you've ever performed a contemplative exercise like prayer or meditation, you might resonate with the following observation: your thoughts seem to emerge automatically. You don't choose them actively in each moment.
If you don't get what I mean, sit down, close your eyes, and wait.
Perhaps for a few seconds, your mind will be empty. But after a while, thoughts will begin to flood your consciousness. Maybe it's a mental note of the errands of you have to do later today. Maybe it's a flashback to that one time you said something embarrassing at a dinner party. Maybe it's a craving for your next meal.
Regardless of their specific form, the strange thing about these constantly emerging thoughts is that they are unpredictable, and - almost like a dream - can take odd twists and turns at a moment's notice.
Through no fault of your own, a neutral thought can turn negative at the drop of a hat. And once a negative or painful thought emerges - whether in the form of an image or a string of words - it's easy for your mind to latch onto it, and become stuck in a loop of negativity.
Before you know it, the situation can spiral, and those words and images from the past get mixed with old fears and resentments, or something negative you heard on the news recently.
Once this cycle begins, it is hard to stop. If you are like me, you know that negativity - whether it takes the form of resentment, anger, or self-pity, can be strangely self-perpetuating.
How to Break the Cycle
Paradoxically, the more you explicitly focus on avoiding the negative thoughts, the stronger they tend to become.
The notion that you can totally stop certain thoughts from emerging is naive. As anyone experienced in an introspective practice understands, your thoughts sometimes have a life of their own.
What is needed to break the cycle is a shift in attitude. You need to change how you relate to your thoughts.
Instead of trying to control your thoughts, become curious about the form they take. Is there an image in your mind? A dramatic scene playing out in your memory? Are words appearing to accompany these visuals? How precisely does this thought show up as a constellation of sensations in your body? Are your shoulders shrugged? Are your hands tense and rigid? Has the cadence and depth of your breath changed?
Just notice all of this, with an attitude of self-compassion and curiosity, rather than judgement.
When you return to your physical senses with an orientation of curiosity, rather than control, often the thought's emotional valence dampens, and you can break the cycle.
We Are What We Think
Our life is in some sense defined by the quality of our attention.
While we can’t think our way out of negative thoughts, we can train our attention to become sharper and more curious, which can prevent us from spiralling.
If the technique described above - curiously deconstructing the thought itself, and observing how it manifests in your body - doesn't resonate with you, here's another simple technique that might be useful.
Instead of focussing on the physical characteristics associated with the thought, find a different anchor for attention.
One great option is to focus on the sounds in your environment. It could be anything - the hum of the refrigerator, the chirping of the birds outside, or the sound of your breath gently going in and out. Close your eyes and allow this to become your whole world, momentarily.
Another possibility is your vision scape. With eyes open (or closed), expand your gaze as wide as you can, allowing it to soften. See the world as a symphony of light and colour, trying to lose sight of the conceptual framing of the objects in your visual field. Instead see them for their raw physical characteristics.
These techniques, which center around coming back to the physical world, whether it be through sights, sounds, or bodily sensations, are a beautiful way to escape the grip of toxic emotions and regain control over your mind.
Here's a great mind-bending guided meditation, for anyone who wants to integrate the principles described in this article: