“I can’t turn my brain off,” my six year old laments to me as I tuck her in to bed. “I just keep thinking about things.”
“What kinds of things?” I ask.
“Like whether chickens have toes.”
Thoughts are tricky things. Whether you’re consumed with nagging doubts about your own worth, concerns about the health of someone you love, fears of financial failure or uncertainty about the existence of chicken toes— the type of thoughts you think is by far the most powerful indicator for whether you’re living a happy, fulfilled life.
It’s a challenge for our brains to effectively process our thoughts because we rarely stop thinking long enough to actually explore them objectively. Thoughts completely permeate our consciousness— so much so that our rational brain has no way of knowing whether the things we’re thinking about are based in truth or fiction. Our processing center is so inundated by the sheer number of thoughts that need sorting, often, the best our brains can do is clump these thoughts into general categories: fears, hopes, joys, chicken anatomy. There’s no time to evaluate how true these thoughts are, how important they are, how much they matter, how much weight they deserve. By default, then, every thought gets equal merit. Not only that, the more we think about a particular issue, the more “true” our brain believes that thought to be.
The problem with this, friends, is that the kind of thoughts we entertain have been shown to dramatically affect the quality of our health, our happiness levels and our general way of being in the world.Which is to say, the more time we spend thinking about negative things, the more negative our approach to life tends to be.
And when our approach to life is negative, our experiences tend to reflect that negativity right back to us.
So what can we do?
The answer is simple, but far from easy: We can start choosing our thoughts, instead of letting our thoughts choose us. Henry David Thoreau once said:
As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind.
To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.
To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.
Thoughts are powerful things. The dark ones, in particular, often prey upon our vulnerabilities, leaving us feeling hopeless and defenseless in their wake. In NPR’s Invisibilia podcast “The Secret History of Thoughts,” cohosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel explore the fascinating relationship between us and our thoughts, touching on our ability to change that relationship if we choose.
Because, it turns out, even more powerful than our thoughts, themselves, is our ability to hone them. Our capacity to train our minds to release the disturbing notions that don’t serve us. Our choice to engage only the thoughts that help us forge the deeply fulfilling mental path Thoreau speaks about. And, of course, our understanding that happiness isn’t a virtue bestowed only upon the lucky few, but a hard fought mental victory, achieved through the dutiful practice of mindful repetition.
MY CHALLENGE FOR YOU:
Today, begin your own mindfulness practice.
Start, by acknowledging to yourself that while you may have no control over the thoughts that arise within you, you do have control over whether or not you choose to engage them.
Make a commitment to spend five minutes each day training your brain to release the thoughts that don’t serve you.
Begin by checking out this animated guide to meditation narrated by Dan Harris, ABC News anchor and author of the book 10% Happier.