- When you are suffering for any reason, your mind races, which makes it harder to think clearly.
- Doing battle with your thoughts or suppressing them makes things worse.
- Simply placing your attention on a specific sensation for a short time separates you from racing thoughts.
- The thinking brain functions better, and you can learn to live your life with clarity.
The late Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote a classic paper in 1987 called Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression.1 He demonstrated that the more you try not to think about something—the study asked participants to try not to think of a white bear—the more you will think about it. The paper has been nicknamed, “White Bears.”
The finding is not news to any of us. But the study also demonstrated a trampoline effect—when you try not to think of a white bear, you actually think about it a lot more. As the patterns of neural activation strengthen with repetition, unpleasant thoughts often become more problematic over time. Ironically, the thoughts are who you are not, otherwise you would not suppress them.
A basic tenet of many Eastern philosophies is that worrying about the future and thinking about the past cause internal unrest. There is anxiety around the future and many regrets and frustrations about the past. Staying in the present moment is key, but how do you accomplish it?
You cannot control your mind with your mind. When your mind is racing, your body will be tense and tight. The harder you try to calm down your thoughts, the faster your brain will spin. Neural circuits are deeply embedded, especially the unpleasant ones you instinctively fight.
As you cannot fix, repair, or outrun the repetitive thoughts, one option is shifting from them, activating more functional and enjoyable circuits. This is quickly accomplished by focusing your attention on any specific sensation from your immediate surroundings. Using any sense works—sound, smell, taste, feel, pressure, sight. My term for this tool is “active mediation.” It is an abbreviated version of mindfulness, and you focus on any sensation for a few seconds, up to a minute. You connect your consciousness to the present moment. The intention is to incorporate this practice frequently into your daily routine until it becomes habitual.
Three steps from Eastern philosophy
- Focusing on a sensation
I learned them in a workshop given by Alan Wallace, a prominent researcher in integrating Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science.
Active meditation in practice
I practiced this daily during my hectic days at work. I often did it with my patients in clinic, especially if I was running behind. We sat back in our chairs, let our shoulders sag, jaws relax, took a long deep breath, and slowly let it go (relaxation). We stayed relaxed for 5-10 seconds (stabilization), while I had patients listen to the ventilation system. Then our attention shifted to voices outside the door, our feet on the floor, and back to the vent. It took about a minute.
Invariably, everyone felt more relaxed and I heard my voice change to a softer pitch. Our attention had shifted from racing thoughts to the current moment through sensory awareness. I encouraged patients to do this often until became automatic.
You can also do this much faster for just three to five seconds. Simply engage with any sensation for short periods as often as possible throughout the day. During surgery, I would engage in active meditation with essentially every move I made. My go-to sensation was grip pressure on my surgical instruments. There is more feel and control with a light touch. Eventually, the sensations and moves I made became so automatic that I developed a safe zone, and it would have required a conscious choice to be unsafe. The consistency of my performance improved my enjoyment of the day as well.
Another rendition of this tool is listening; I mean really listening in a way that you can visualize the other person’s perspective and realize that the words they are saying mean something different to them than they do to you. It is remarkably more interesting to hear others' perspectives rather than replaying your own.
The past is the past
You cannot change the past or control the future, and neural circuits are permanently embedded. Trying harder to analyze and fix them stimulates and reinforces them (neuroplasticity). Going to battle with them is deadly. Simply shift your attention to any immediate sensory input. That is it, and it is that simple.
1. Wegner, D.M., et al. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1987); 53: 5-13.