It’s easy to get swept away by our thoughts, especially in the face of strong emotions. We get stuck ruminating and dwelling about the past, filled with guilt or regret. Or our minds start racing and we can’t stop worrying about the future and imagining all the things that could go wrong. Or we replay conversations over and over again in our heads, trying to make sense of them or figure out what we could have said differently.
When our minds get going like this, not only is it exhausting; these patterns of thinking tend to make us feel bad, intensifying the emotions we’re already feeling and generating additional negative emotions as well. Because this experience is so unpleasant, it’s natural to want to these thoughts to stop, and to be able to prevent yourself from even having them in the first place. We often wind up trying to make these thoughts go away, and shut them out completely and make sure they don’t come back. But just like we can’t control our emotions or suppress our emotions, neither can we control or suppress our thoughts.
So what can we do when our thoughts start racing, we get stuck ruminating, or we just can’t quiet down our minds? One way of approaching negative and disruptive thinking is to examine our thoughts and see if there aren’t some alternative ways of thinking about the situation. We looked at how we might deal with distressing and negative thoughts in this manner using cognitive therapy (CBT) in a post on cognitive therapy and challenging negative thoughts.
An alternative approach is to bring mindfulness to our thoughts, and learn how to just let go of them. “We do not need to fight with thoughts or struggle against them or judge them. Rather, we can simply choose not to follow the thoughts once we are aware that they have arisen,” write Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, John D. Teasdale and Jon Kabatt-Zinn in their book The Mindful Way Through Depression, about the Mindfulness-Based Congitive Therapy (MBCT) approach to depression.
Mindfully letting go of thoughts is something we learn to do when we meditate. Many people think mediation involves having a blank mind completely void of any thoughts. However, in mindfulness meditation, the idea is not to shut out thoughts altogether, but simply to not allow yourself to get carried away by your thoughts.
In mindfulness meditation of the breath, for example, we bring our attention to our breath, and try, as best we can, to keep our attention focused on our breath. Despite our intentions, our mind inevitably does wander from the breath, and we start thinking.
When this happens, we simply acknowledge that our attention has wandered to our thoughts, and then let go of those thoughts and return our attention to our breath. And when our mind wanders again and we start thinking about something else, once again we acknowledge our thoughts, let go of them, and return our attention to our breath.
Just as we learn to repeatedly let go of our thoughts and return our attention to our breath when we meditate, we can do the same thing as we go about our every day life. When we practice letting go of thoughts in everyday life, we don’t always need to return our attention to the breath (though taking a breathing time out or returning to the breath for a few moments is always a great way to relieve stress). Instead, we can let go of a thought and return our attention to the work we were doing, or the book we were reading, or the person we were talking to, or whatever else we were doing when our thoughts began to steal our attention.
Another way to we can let go of a thought is to refocus our attention from our thoughts to our senses: the taste of the food we’re eating, the sound of the music we’re listening to; the sights around us; or the sensations of our feet striking the ground as we walk. Letting go of thoughts is as simple as acknowledging that our mind is off thinking about something other than the present moment, and then allowing that thought to pass out of our mind as we return our attention to whatever it is we are doing and whatever is going on in the present.
In theory, letting go of thoughts is simple. In practice, though, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It can seem like as soon as we let go of a thought, there it is again, back in our head. In the next post, we look at how watching your thoughts can help you let go of your thoughts.