How Mindful Focus Can Help Free Your Mind From Painful or Repeating Thoughts

How often do you feel plagued by a thought? Or you feel pushed around by an idea or image, as if it were a phantom bully, disrupting your concentration or making a moment of life, of school or work, more difficult? You begin to look more at the ghost that trails you than the people or events that face you. Especially in times like this, it can be difficult to find comfort and clarity.

 

One way to get free from an obsessive, painful or distracting thought is to center your mind on feeling a sensation. In this way you break the apparent chain of thought. Every time you stop reinforcing an old and hurtful habit and calm your mind, even for a second, you set your mind free and show yourself you can do it. Your mind stops rushing. You give yourself a moment’s respite and allow a new pattern to be created. Find a place safe and quiet enough so you can stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. You can be sitting or standing. And focus your attention on the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe out. Simply feel the air going out. Mind has only one object at a time. If you focus on feeling, you let go of thinking.

 

You can feel the temperature of the air as it passes over the upper lip, or whether the exhalation is smooth and deep, or choppy and shallow.

 

Then notice how your body automatically strives to open itself and take in air once again. Notice where you first feel the impulse to inhale and whether the impulse comes quickly or slowly. Then feel the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe in. Feel your whole body expanding, your belly, shoulders, and face as you return attention to the air entering through the nose.

 

Notice the pause between breaths. You get quiet. For a second, you are simply there. For a sweet second of life, all that is important is the simple enjoyment of life.

 

And then you want to let go of the air, and let go of tension. You settle into the sensation of letting go as you push the air out. If a thought does arise, congratulate yourself on being able to notice it. And then let it go by shifting your focus to the air passing out, over the upper lip as you exhale. Usually, what is most important is not what arises but how you respond. You become aware of the thought precisely in order to learn from it and let it go.

 

Breathe in and out through the nose. This is the cycle of a breath. When you are aware of it, you appreciate the simple, basic aspects of living. You are kinder to yourself.

 

If you are leading a group or class, first study and practice, daily, on your own, to know it from the “inside,” and possibly find a mindfulness teacher or counselor. You might give students a choice of where to focus, on the upper lip, on the shoulders, or on the bottom of your feet—focus wherever it is easier to focus. Focusing on the feet can be helpful for facing anxiety and fear as it helps you feel more grounded, or centered. You breathe out and feel your feet pressing down against the floor or earth as you push the air up, from your feet and out your nose. You focus directly on the breath and let everything else go. Then as you breathe in, feel the air enter your body and go all the way down to your feet. Feel your body expand slightly—your feet expand down, into the floor or earth.

 

Do this for three breaths, or three minutes, whenever you need it, or at a set time of day. Just a small investment of time can be significant. Start small and your body will ask for more.

 

You might feel that if you’re not rushed, you’re not important. In our society, it is easy to think the busier you look, the more important you feel. Being constantly connected to social media, for example, means people value you. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation. So, especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected from technology or from busy-ness can mean to them they are less valuable or they are missing something. If you don’t fill each moment with tasks or texts or thoughts, you are wasting your time. But being connected to media often means being disconnected from yourself. You miss yourself. When you quiet your mind, you hear the world more fully and clearly.

 

Focusing on feeling is only one of many methods you can use. You can teach yourself to mindfully face uncomfortable emotions and question thoughts. If you turn away from feeling fear, for example, you let it rule. Usually, when you face something directly, you can break its hold on you. When you face what bothers you, you feel more powerful. Distraction is another technique many people use, reading a book, working out at a gym, or taking a walk in the woods when you want to “get out of your head” and back into the rest of the world.

 

To let go of a thought, it might also help to understand why you have thoughts. So study yourself. Thoughts are an expression of mind testing and abstracting from reality to create a viewpoint. The initial level of any mental state is what psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel calls an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized and you begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral. You explain the world to yourself and you get the desire to hold, as in the emotion of joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate.

 

You might hold on to a thought in order to control what you feel can’t be controlled. You might worry about something occurring in order to magically prevent its occurrence. You might think your viewpoint is the absolute truth in order to prevent yourself from noticing how contingent and subjective a truth is. You might hold on to a thought out of fear of having nothing to hold on to.

 

When your mind quiets, you are more likely to directly notice the feeling that precedes thought. You can notice an idea without being caught by it. When you mistake the thought about an event or person as the entire story, you miss so much. When you focus on feeling, it shifts your perspective so you perceive and live more deeply the entire reality out of which the thought arises. You feel more centered and enjoy more fully the individual moments of your life. When the mind is calm, you act, teach, and learn more effectively.

Education, Technology and Relationships

Friends are great. Really. The quality of the life you live depends greatly on the quality of your relationships, the moments spent with friends, family, even pets and the environment. This blog was inspired by a friend who sends me articles she thinks might interest me.

 

Our brains prioritize human relationships. We make judgments about other people much faster than with other things. If you pay attention to what thoughts fly around in your mind, most of them involve other people, how you appear to others, and such. Relationships are crucial to our very sense of ourselves and what is real. Dr. Daniel Siegel conceptualizes mind, including conscious awareness and subjective experience, not just in terms of an embodied brain, but in terms of the relational processes, the exchanges of information we are involved in.  So any education, especially K-12, must prioritize relationships—the quality of relationship that a teacher has with students, how students are taught to relate to peers, other adults, even people on the street. And, of course, with themselves. Many people grow up thinking their own self is as foreign to them as a random person on the street, except with your self you get to listen in to intimate experiences, conversations and memories.

 

If you spend several hours a day relating to a virtual reality, does this undermine your ability to relate with a flesh and blood one? For years now, schools have been pushed to increase the use of computers and other digital technologies with little reflection on the affects of the technology use. Many school districts already have or are aiming at giving each student and teacher a laptop or other device. They imagine great learning will ensue from this “21st Century” approach to education. Many politicians, media experts, and corporate executives who attack American public schools as falling behind other nations often push digital devices–while leaving out the fact that those nations which outperform us on standardized tests, like Finland, spend less on computers, and other forms of technology in the classroom, than we do. Compared to the salaries of other professionals, they do spend more on teachers. In other words, it’s not the technology that is helping students from those nations supposedly outperform us on tests. Isn’t it about time to question that priority? How and how much should technology be used in education? Should we teach not just digital literacy, but digital mindfulness, mindfulness of the affect media has on our emotions, thinking and attention to the world around us?

 

Psychologist Susan Pinker wrote a great article for the NY Times opinion pages called “Can Students Have Too Much Tech?” The answer she gives is a definite “yes.” She says, for example, “Students who gain access to a home computer between the 5th and 8th grades tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores.” The impact on students from poorer families is far worse. I haven’t, yet, read her book The Village Effect, on the importance of face-to-face contact, but I plan to. I decided to independently check out her basic conclusion. I found out that, according to USEIT, a study funded by the US Department of Education which analyzed the relationship between student computer use and test performance, the “recreational use of computers to play games, explore the Internet for fun, or chat with friends at home had a negative effect on students’ MCAS [Massachusetts standardized test] reading scores.” However, when computers are used through the full writing process, from rough draft to editing and final draft, this positively affects test scores.

 

Since I don’t think standardized test scores are an accurate or educationally positive way to assess student learning, I looked at other indicators. For example, how does technology affect us emotionally? How anxious do you get when you can’t check in with your technology? One study showed that, for example, 51% of people born between 1990 and 1998 get anxious when they can’t check their text messages. 62% of those same people check their technologies every 15 minutes, or even more frequently. People feel deprived and wonder what they’re missing if they can’t check their phone. How often do you see people walking through a beautiful natural environment, or even sitting at dinner with a loved one or friends, and instead of talking with the person in front of them, they’re on their phones? For these people, the phone, the virtual reality, has become valued equal to or more than the flesh and blood one. If you can’t let go of the virtual world, how can you learn in, or feel fully present, feel meaningfully engaged in, the world outside that realm? Many teachers I know have noted the increase of anxiety in their students. Is technology a major culprit?

 

If administrators and others were serious about improving the lives and education of students, they would spend more time and resources on improving equity of resources between schools, and on social-emotional learning and mindfulness, so kids could learn to better self-regulate their emotions, their attention, their time spent in different activities. In order to develop the empathy needed for good relationships, emotional regulation is crucial. In order to think more critically and clearly, empathy and mindfulness are important for enabling the student to better reflect on and direct their thinking. Money spent on tech and tests is money not spent on social-emotional learning (or teachers), yet our children need to learn both about emotion and computer technology. Maybe one reason tech is pushed is the same reason some politicians and educational corporations attack and try to undermine public schools: greed. Attack teachers and public schools and you sell the idea of charters, standardized tests and programmed lessons produced by educational corporations—and sell technology. I probably do not need to say this, but I will: technology is big money.

 

Technology is not only addictive to young people. If you’re old enough, consider how much more you pay for your phone, television, etc. than you paid in the 1970s or early 1980s. For me, it’s about 10 times more, and I have a flip phone. Of course, I love my computers, I love the new television programming, DVDs, etc.. I only bought a television in 1980 to watch the television series Shogun. But since the 1980s, the amount of money most of us spend on technology has gone up, while the average income for 90% of us has remained stagnant. (According to the IRS, the average income in 2008, adjusted for inflation, is $400 less than 1988.) Does the technology function to make us forget that the quality of our media has gone up, but our freedom to earn a good wage, to influence political decisions, to attend college without indebting ourselves for decades, etc. has gone down. It’s important to teach students how to use and create technology. But we can’t improve understanding of life and death, of our place in the world of other people and other species, by diminishing how much we value actual face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact with those others. We see so many more people on Facebook. (I even share this blog on Facebook and other media.) Facebook is great for keeping contact and sharing information. But has the quality of our lives and relationships improved? Have we moved closer to substituting virtual contact for face-to-face presence? And is the price worth it?