Your Brain Is Out to Get You
For many, Life is hard
Why is life such an emotional challenge for some people? For many, it consists of endless problems and upsetting incidents. According to the mental health charity, Mind, 1 in 4 of us will experience some sort of mental health problem during our lifetime. Why is this? Part of the reason comes down to this: how you feel is a direct result of how you manage your thoughts.
Beware of your monkey mind
The brain does two things incredibly well: 1) it is excellent at predicting potential danger, and 2) it has an incredibly powerful imagination. When you combine the two, you have the perfect incubator for fear, worry and anxiety.
Buddhists talk about “monkey mind”. A monkey swings through trees all day, grabbing branch after branch and going deeper and deeper into the jungle. Our minds are similar to that monkey. It spends the day grabbing thought after thought and depending on what thought it grabs, it goes a particular direction, deeper and deeper into a particular mood or feeling.
Your mind grabs thought after thought – it’s what minds do. And it’s only a matter of time before it grabs an upsetting, worrying, or frightening thought.
And once it has one, the mind has a tendency to make connections and conceptual leaps, i.e. grab even more upsetting thoughts and these thoughts begin to accumulate and intensify. Before you know it, your monkey mind has lead you deep into a mental jungle, of worry, fear and anxiety.
Respite from your brain
Your brain overthinks from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep. Your mind just thinks and thinks and thinks. Indeed, it’s been estimated that you have 65,000 thoughts a day and your monkey mind only needs to grab one upsetting thought and run with it to make you feel miserable.
How do we solve this? How do we gain greater control over our monkey minds and find greater peace within ourselves?
The first step is to recognise that you are not your thoughts.
Just because you think or feel something does not make it true. Just because you think or feel something, does not make it fact. We all know this first-hand. We all have had nightmares that seemed unquestioningly real only to wake up and dismiss them for what they really are, figments or our imagination.
We tell the child who has nightmares that the witch under the bed is not real, for example. We do it for children all the time but we seem to lack the ability to do the same for our own, adult problems. That’s the illusion of our mind. Because we are adult and intelligent and logical, our thoughts must be real, right? But very often, they’re just grown up versions of witches under beds.
In short, you need to learn to step away from your thoughts.
You have a thought/feeling. Instead of immediately identifying with it, you can take a step back and observe it.
And between your observing self and your thoughts/feelings, there is a response gap. And in that gap you can exercise your personal choice, willpower, determination and perseverance. There is the potential for freedom in this gap you create when you realise that you are not your thoughts.
Stop following the monkey
Your monkey mind will want to take you by the hand and lead you into a dark jungle to show you upsetting things. You can make a conscious decision to not to follow the monkey but, instead, stay where you are. How do you do that? Through consciously choosing to stay in the present. An extremely effective technique for remaining in the present is meditation.
Now, some of you right now are thinking: meditation is a bunch of vegans sitting around in pyjamas doing some airy-fairy nonsense and it isn’t for you. But meditation comes in many different forms and you can meditate when you’re making a cup of tea, when you’re walking down the street, when writing an email, answering the phone or eating a sandwich. Meditation is nothing more than training your mind to be fully present in the moment non-judgmentally. It trains you to observe your thoughts as they come and go without grasping at them or pushing them away.
Being present like this stops you following your monkey mind deeper into the dark jungle. The monkey wants to lead you somewhere but each time it does, you decide not to follow by returning your mind to the present, not some fearful, imagined past or future.
Resist the discomfort
A lot of self-help material is disingenuous. It says, if you learn this technique or you attend this seminar or you think positive – or whatever – then you will never be sad again, you will never be upset or feel overwhelmed or be unhappy for as long as you live.
Bullshit. We will always have upsetting thoughts – it’s just what minds do. We can no more stop upsetting thoughts as we can stop breathing or stop our heartbeat.
The goal is not to feel better but to be better at feeling, i.e. to experience our emotions in more helpful and healthy ways.
Next time you experience an upsetting thought, carry on with our day. You do what you need to do whilst still feeling bad, whilst still feeling upset or anxious or whatever. This is important. You train your mind to act despite feeling upset.
See your mind like the weather
Some days it’s sunny, other days there are clouds overhead, other days there are storms. But like the weather, you simply observe it, let it be, and get on with our day. You don’t cry and torture yourself over why it’s raining or why it’s overcast. You don’t follow the rain clouds to see how they came about. You don’t blame yourself for the weather.
Bad weather will leave on its own accord, in its own time. It will leave provided you stay present and refuse to follow your mind into the jungle. When you feel yourself following the mind, return to the present by focusing on your breathing, breath by breath.
The next time you find yourself upset
- See upsetting thoughts for what they are– your brain creating imaginary fears, i.e. witches under beds.
- Don’t follow your monkey mind. Remember, you are not your thoughts.
- You have a choice as to how you react to things.
- Ride through the emotion, refusing to follow your thoughts but instead continually coming back to your breathing and carrying on with your life despite feeling upset.
Make a diligent effort to apply these techniques on a daily basis for two months and you will develop much greater peace of mind in your life that will stay with you for years to come. Remember, you don’t have to believe everything you think.