Mind the Gap

Mindfulness helps us avoid destructive trains of thought.

Posted Apr 30, 2015

If you’ve ever gotten on the wrong train, you know the feeling: the doors close, the train takes off, and it hits you: “I’m going the wrong way!” If you’re lucky the next stop is only a minute or two away; if not, you could be in for a long and frustrating ride.

Kabelleger / David Gubler (Own work: http://www.bahnbilder.ch/picture/215) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Kabelleger / David Gubler (Own work: http://www.bahnbilder.ch/picture/215) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When things go wrong, our thoughts and feelings can be a lot like trains, and we can choose whether or not to “take a ride” on the events that happen in our heads. Sometimes a thought or an emotion takes us where we want to go, and other times we’d be better off waiting for the next one.

If we pay attention, we’ll probably recognize a familiar cast of trains that try to lure us on board. Someone makes a remark that we could take the wrong way—or, we could let it go, giving the person the benefit of the doubt. A car cuts us off in traffic and we feel like we have to punish them—or we can let them speed away.

It probably happens to all of us multiple times a day—we have the option to take the angry train, the worried train, the self-righteous train, the put-upon/poor-me train, the jealous or critical train, the defensive or vengeful train, the suspicious train, the avoid-conflict-at-any-cost train. Each of us probably recognizes the trains we tend to take, and how they carry us to undesirable destinations. 

I meant to be patient this evening and instead I took the when-will-my-6-month-old-fall-asleep-already/I’m-so-angry train.” 

I planned a peaceful drive to work and ended up seething at the cars in front of me for not going faster.”

Most of these trains are a lot easier to get on than to get off. Like real trains, unhelpful thoughts and emotions are harder to stop when they’re going full speed.

Sometimes we take the train, much to our regret. Other times, if we’re lucky, we see the train coming, and we see it slow down and stop in front of us, inviting us inside. We decide to stand, unwavering, as the doors open … and close. As the train recedes in the distance we realize how grateful we are not to be on it.

How can we strengthen our ability to let the unhealthy trains go? As Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

There’s evidence that being mindful increases our ability to choose wisely. When we’re mindful we bring our curiosity and openness to the present moment. We’re aware of what’s going on, both inside us and around us. We’re not sleepwalking. We can choose not to react automatically—mindlessly—to an event, a thought, or an emotion, but rather to observe things and choose if, and how, to respond.

A recent study by Long and Christian added to the evidence that mindfulness can change our reflexive responses. In two experiments that involved very different conditions, the researchers found that being more mindful generally, or listening to a mindfulness-inducing audio clip, led to less retaliation after being treated unfairly.

How did mindfulness lower the rate of retaliation? The experimenters determined that mindfulness led to less negative emotion and less rumination (getting “stuck in our heads” about being treated unfairly), which in turn lowered the likelihood of striking back.

It’s easy to say, “Stay off that train,” and so much harder to do it. We need the right tools. Training in mindfulness helps us stick with trains that take us where we want to go.