Mindfulness is a skill that you can develop that will transform how you relate to these unwanted thoughts and feelings, transforming your relationship to them will mean that they have far less impact on you. Mindfulness is a skill, and like any other skill it will take you time to learn and develop.
To illustrate how mindfulness works let me tell you a story. Some mindfulness teachers equate our thoughts to being like clouds floating through the sky of our mind, other like cars passing by the roadway of our mind. Others refer to ‘trains’ of thought. Our preferred mode of mental transport is by donkey!
Here in the UK you can go to the beach, and in some places like Blackpool or Scarborough we still have donkey rides. We often see a pack of tired-looking animals with names written across their head harness. Children’s donkey rides at the beach are a real treat, at least for the children. All the donkeys do is slowly walk up the beach and back. You can even have donkeys walking the route with no one on their backs because they’re so used to walking the route with the other donkeys. It has become an automatic thing to do for them.
Now imagine that on one of those rare hot British days, you and your family have gone to the beach to enjoy a ‘perfect’ day out. You’ve gone because you want to go to have some quality time together and enjoy all that is good about the British seaside.
Imagine sitting there on your deckchair staring out to see. You start watching these donkeys walk past; they just come, they go, they get on with their own path of walking; they have nothing to do with you, you know they will just walk past you on the beach as that’s their job.
Now imagine that these donkeys represent thoughts – your thoughts. You have hundreds or even thousands of thoughts each day that just go through your mind and then move on, just like the donkeys moving across the beach. Most of your thoughts float by without grabbing your attention or forcing you into immediate action. They just pass through. Just like the donkeys walking along the beach.
Now imagine that you’re sitting on this beach watching the donkeys, and the next donkey that comes along is really ugly, even horrific-looking; it’s a real 5-legged limping, drooling, braying donkey-monster! Now, if you were just sitting back, enjoying the beach and watching donkeys, you might stare at this donkey, noticing it looks and sounds a bit disturbing
As you watched with fascination, it would just walk past with the others, around the post and back to where it started, also ignoring you.
However, when it comes to ugly thoughts and feelings, we behave quite differently. We often stop what we’re doing, get off our deckchair, run across the beach and put all our energy into trying to push it away. Sometimes, it’s as if we suddenly leap upon this dreadful creature’s back to ride it and try and control it. We are consumed and distracted by the thought. We let it take us over and away from being with what we enjoy. Then what happens is that this ‘donkey-monster’ thought that you’re riding veers off course because you’ve interfered with it. It’s no longer following its routine path, instead it hurtles off towards the sea. Before you know what’s happening your head is under the water and you’re struggling to breathe. You’re in a desperate situation and totally out of your depth. All this happened because you got on the donkey and let it take control. Without the superpower of ‘mindful awareness’ you’ve absolutely no idea how you got from relaxing on the beach with your family to feeling anxious and out of control.
What mindfulness allows you to do is to be aware and notice when you’ve got on the back of an out-of-control donkey and gives you a way to safely and swiftly dismount. Obviously, when you first start developing this new mental skill, you won’t get the timing right each time. Sometimes you’ll already be in deep water and big trouble and you’ll have to struggle back to shore with your heart thumping, out of breath and maybe even trembling. Yet you make it back to the deckchair, you calm down, and you can go back to enjoying being with your family on the beach, watching the donkeys walk past.
If you keep practising the skill of noticing and getting off the donkey, soon you’ll find it easier to dismount, doing it before you even get into the sea. When you’ve practiced a lot, you’ll notice the urge to get off your deckchair in the first place and choose to stay put (because you just can’t be bothered to do that tiring mental stuff anymore). The ideal is to never get on the donkey, although we will all still sometimes get caught by thoughts.
This novel approach gives you a radically different way of interacting with your thoughts. The default approach most of us start with is the problem solving, analytical mind, trying to challenge the thought, to say it’s wrong, or say it shouldn’t be there in the first place. Have you ever tried arguing with a donkey? You really don’t get anywhere.
This little story goes some way to show what will happen as you develop your mindfulness skills. There are several different mindfulness ideas in this one story.
First, you’re going to the beach because it’s something you value and is important to you and gives meaning to your life. If you stop going to the beach because you wanted to avoid the chance of coming across the odd monster-donkey, then your life would be less rich. So, taking action to do something that is going to be meaningful to you and add value to your life is important.
The next idea is to realise when you’re getting carried away by a thought, noticing when ‘you’ve jumped on the donkey and are heading towards the sea’. Mindfulness allows you to become aware of where your mind is and return it to just observing the donkeys walking past you on the beach as you get on with doing things that are important to you.
This then introduces the idea of a part of you that can notice your own thoughts. We all have the ability to notice our thoughts, feeling and actions as they happen. With mindfulness practice we strengthen this ability to notice what’s going on. That part of you that notices never gets caught up with, or damaged by the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. The part of you that can notice and witness anxiety is free from anxiety. That bit of you that can notice that you’re having a thought or feeling or a bodily sensation doesn’t fear them. This observer self, the witness to your life, is constant and independent of your thoughts. Being more familiar with this ‘noticing’ aspect of yourself means that whatever thoughts pass by, can be seen as ‘just more ugly-but-harmless donkeys’. No matter how ugly they look, they won’t harm you as long as you learn to let them pass by in their own time.
The last lesson from this story is that we ALL have thought and feelings that we don’t like to have. When you learn through mindfulness practice how to just ‘let them be’ so you don’t have to get carried away by them, it’s priceless. If you know you can always safely ‘get off that donkey’ when you’ve got caught on it, it means you could be prepared to look more closely at it. You might even become fascinated by those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, instead of frightened or overwhelmed by them. It doesn’t mean you must like it; it just means you’re willing to allow it to be there. Allowing it to walk past, through the ‘beach’ of your mind, and round the turning point back to where it started.