Imagine it’s early in the morning. You get out of bed, walk to the window and pull the curtains to the side. The sun is up and there’s not a cloud in sight.
You think to yourself “Wow, look at that. It’s going to be a beautiful day today.”
Now, have you ever asked yourself this: If your mind is saying it’s a beautiful day, then who is the one listening to this statement?
Isn’t this strange? I mean, you already knew it’s a beautiful day the second you looked out the window. So why is your mind repeating this already obvious fact? And who is it talking to?
The Two Minds
In Zen, they explain this weird phenomenon by referring the two minds — the thinking mind and the observing mind. This is a common concept in Buddhism and contemporary western therapies like Acceptance-Commitment Therapy, or ACT for short, are beginning to catch on to how helpful it can be to solve a lot of our day to day emotional problems.
You see, the problem with the thinking mind is that we don’t have complete control over it. A very quick thought experiment can prove this point:
For the next ten seconds, DO NOT THINK OF A WHITE BEAR.
If you’re like most people, that bear will be haunting you like crazy, especially if you try hard to suppress it (1).
You’ve probably noticed that the thinking mind is always blabbing away. While you’re waiting in line, when you’re in an important meeting, when you’re trying to go to sleep, when you ‘tune out’ in a conversation with someone else and, if you’re a writer like me, it seems to be especially active when you’re trying to crank out your words for the day.
As a matter of fact, I’ve had tons of thoughts popping up while writing this: ‘Are you sure this is relevant?’, ‘Wow, you really butchered that sentence,’ ‘Nobody is going to want to read this,’ ‘Are you getting WORSE at English every day?’ and a whole slew of other, quite unhelpful, comments.
This running commentary in our heads is the thinking mind in action.
The same is also true for emotions. And that is actually where most of our suffering come from — not from the negative emotions themselves, but from helplessly getting sucked into them.
The Thinking Mind & The Observing Mind
So, why is all this important? Well, because most of our negative psychological and emotional experiences happen because we can’t differentiate between out thinking mind and our observing mind.
Most people want to ‘get rid’ of their thoughts and feelings. They don’t want to feel stressed, lonely, fearful, angry, jealous or nervous. That’s fair enough.
But the thing is you can’t control your thoughts and emotions. Why? Because they belong to your thinking mind. Thoughts and feelings have always popped up throughout your life, and they will continue to do so.
What you CAN do is change the way you relate to these feelings and thoughts. Realize that you’re experiencing your thoughts and emotions through your observing mind and avoid identifying with your thinking mind.
Instead of saying ‘I am angry,’ say ‘I feel anger.’ Instead of saying, ‘I am nervous,’ say, ‘I feel nervousness.’ Instead of saying, ‘I am jealous,’ say, ‘I feel jealousy.’
This might seem like a subtle shift, and it is. Still, it can make a HUGE difference in how you deal with your thoughts and feelings. This is because it creates a separateness between your thinking and observing mind. And this, in turn, helps you to stop identifying with your thoughts and feelings.
When you stop saying ‘I AM angry’ and instead realize that all that is happening is that you are just FEELING anger at this moment, you can start relating to the emotion in a different way.
Instead of perceiving the anger as a part of you, it becomes something fleeting that you can observe without getting caught up in it. As meditation teachers like to put it, your thoughts and feelings become like clouds that pass across the sky.
So, the key to dealing with emotional problems is to always accept what’s going on in your mind. Welcome your thoughts and feelings no matter how scary, uncomfortable or annoying they may be:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!…
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
How to Deal With Emotional Problems
Most people deal with their emotional problems by resisting, repressing and ignoring them. In these times of constant distraction, there is no shortage of other things you can turn your attention to when your mind is feeling uneasy.
One recent study showed that most people would rather receive a small electric shock than be alone with their thoughts (2). I suggest we take a more healthy approach to deal with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings:
- Become aware of particularly strong thoughts and feelings. Practice catching them as they show up and immediately disidentify with them. Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts.
- Use labeling. Research has shown that naming and assessing an emotion transforms the emotion into an object of scrutiny and thereby decreases its intensity (3). So if you’re feeling angry, simply tell yourself: ‘Ah, that’s anger!’ and you’ll most likely notice that the intensity of the feeling immediately drops.
- Get curious. Instead of resisting the thoughts and feelings, get curious about them. Pay attention to how they make you feel. Where in the body do they manifest? How do the different muscles in your body feel? What is your breath like? Hold your thoughts and feelings in present awareness and just let them do their thing without judging or clinging to them. Use the idea of your mind as a clear blue sky and your thoughts and feelings as clouds that are temporarily passing by.
If you keep practicing this regularly (preferably alongside meditation practice), you’ll soon find that your relationship to your mind starts to change. You’ll develop a powerful ‘metacognition’ (the ability to think about your thinking) which helps you to handle your thoughts and emotions in a much more deliberate and skillful way.
“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.” – Viktor Frankl
Damn right, Viktor! And the first step to get to that space is to know the difference between your thinking mind and your observing mind.
- Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression
- Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind
- Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli
Mark Manson, for sparking the idea to this article.