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.

Learning From Different Viewpoints

Recently, I had a startling experience. I got into an intellectual argument with two acquaintances over the Affordable Care Act. What startled me was the fact that these two seemingly reasonable people were saying things that were, in my estimation, totally unreasonable. Yet, they had a great many facts to back them up, or what they thought were facts. They had more facts then I did. They also had more conviction, so much conviction that I couldn’t even begin to get across my viewpoint. I tried to listen to them. They took my listening as an opportunity to repeat their view again and again. Anything positive I had to say about the ACA was, in their view, not just inaccurate but an abomination. They picked out as important very different aspects of the question than I did. We were looking at totally different realities.


After the incident was over, I felt bad. I had failed to convert them. Even more, our previous peaceful coexistence was, at least temporarily, ended. I was unsure what would happen when we next met. Then I realized I had learned a great deal from these two men. I realized I did not know as much as I thought. I realized how difficult it is to actually think from another person’s viewpoint. And I was reminded of how holding tightly onto an intellectual position can distort the situation you are involved in.


The possibility of such disagreements occurring is enhanced by the fact that many of us listen exclusively to people we agree with. One of the men in the discussion about the ACA said he researched the act with three different sources, but all the sources he cited were from the same political perspective. It can be difficult, unsettling, even threatening to be in the same room with people who you know have viewpoints, political ideologies or religions different from your own. The loud voices often used in political speech, for example, can easily remind you just how threatened people can feel from hearing differing viewpoints.


In the early 1970s, I often hitched rides. This gave me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about talking with people who held viewpoints very different from my own. On one occasion, I was hitching to California from Arizona and was picked up by a marine who had recently returned from Vietnam. I was recently returned from the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. He was very upset about how anti-war protesters spoke about soldiers. I had the long hair of a protester. Somehow, he started talking about the snakes and insects he had encountered. Maybe he was trying to scare me or gross me out.  However, Sierra Leone has an abundance of wildlife. After dueling with scary stories, we particularly bonded over our experiences with black mamba and other snakes.


So, how do you deal with different perspectives? Be aware that when you take on an intellectual viewpoint, it’s easy to think your viewpoint is the “right” one. You might think your position is privileged, outside or above it all and you are looking down on your “opponents.” You might think you know something that they don’t and if only they knew what you knew, they would repent. In Aristotelian logic, something is either true or false. It can’t be both. So, if this “other” view is correct, that means your view is incorrect. And most people I know don’t like being “wrong” or being looked down upon.


Start by mindfully noticing your thoughts and the story you are creating in your mind. Realize that as you are thinking of your “opponent,” she or he is thinking of you. Your viewpoint of this person, or of whatever question you are discussing, no matter how deep, can never encompass the reality of the person or question. Our description of the taste of an orange is never as delicious as actually tasting the orange. However, when you talk honestly with others about the reality of your life, often a connection is made. But, if you use buzz words with deep emotional and intellectual connotations, you can lose both the sense of yourself and the others you are with. When you hold your viewpoints with some lightness or humor, this leaves more room for others to enter.


These differences can also show up in a classroom. Students can seem to teachers to be “intransigent” or just “not getting it” when in reality they are simply disagreeing with something we said or the way that we said it. Teachers can seem, to students, to be judging them, imposing a viewpoint or value on them.  Of course, with students, teachers can have agreements about how to examine and analyze evidence, derive conclusions, and what constitutes a sound argument—something that is more difficult to pull off in the world outside the classroom. We can teach students that the most valuable lesson to learn in a class is how to learn, understand, and change. In that way, when they face a viewpoint that is different from their own, they take it as an opportunity to learn, not a threat.


So, when you run into perceived opposition, take a breath. Notice what you’re feeling. Breathe in the sense that this is another person you are speaking with. You are speaking with a person, not an idea. Feel the fact that the person is feeling something just like you; you feel you have the correct view, she might feel the same. Maybe he is feeling scared or defensive. As you breathe out relax, look at the other person, and only then begin to speak. Hopefully, you and the other person will then meet.