I have a theory about why it is hard for us to let go of our thoughts in general and let go of our anxiety, in particular. Here it is.
Let’s face it. It sounds infinitely more interesting to hear from someone that they find it impossible to calm their busy mind than to hear that they have times when they aren’t really thinking about anything, or that they routinely meditate. We automatically infer that that person must have soooo much to keep track of, is extremely important, constantly problem solving, has too many intriguing and creative ideas to let go of or is super productive. Contrast that to the person who doesn’t have a whirling dervish of a mind and we infer underachiever, dull and, dare I say, not very smart.
That’s a problem. With that perception there’s obviously very little motivation for us to move towards the latter.
All this brings to mind a humorous story about my first time meditating years ago. I honestly couldn’t believe I was being instructed NOT to pay attention to all the creative, insightful and intelligent thoughts that were ping-ponging rapid fire in my brain. I mean, they were soooo interesting! And from my six years of psychology education, I knew immediately they were intrinsically meaningful and important to be having them at that at that moment, so I had to listen.
Sure, I was aware that meditating and being able to cultivate “on-call” focus had been proven to have a bazillion positive benefits for my health and general well-being. After all, that is why I was there.
But with my experience on the cushion that day, I thought to myself that there must’ve been some mistake or misunderstanding. I concluded that the people touting these benefits probably started from a different place than me. Certainly, if they had had my interesting and creative thoughts they wouldn’t suggest that...not at the expense of...
Whoa, did my thoughts have me. Hook, line and sinker! I had totally fallen for them! And as a result indulged in 40 minutes of gloriously reassuring “me time” that day
Fortunately, starting that unsuspecting day, perched crossed legged on an unreasonably small cushion, a slight opening was forced into my belief system. The instruction that made me question the need for my 24/7 thoughts and their “amazingness” eventually led to a bigger opening that, over time and practice, turned into a deep crevasse of time and space away from my thoughts.
AND most importantly enabled me to let go of my anxiety.
So let me bring this around to our anxiety. In order to be able to “let go” of the thoughts that make us anxious or worried we need to practice letting go and not being attached to our thoughts in general. But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a formal meditation, practiced on a teeny cushion with a group.
It just has to be done.
But this is probably not the first time you’ve heard this so we need to figure out possible reasons we stay so attached to our thinking and thoughts.
I’ve compiled a list of reasons you may be subconsciously preventing yourself from letting go of thoughts in general or anxious thoughts in particular. Now by subconscious don’t think Freud type subconscious, think more like the podcasts Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam or Invisibilia with Alix Spiegel, Lulu Miller and Hana Rosen. Both of these podcasts cover stories of the “invisible forces that shape human behavior” and are great listening for your morning commute or folding laundry, walking your dog, running, or whenever.
First, take a deep breath and keep taking deep breaths as you see if any of these could be a fit for you. Again, the point is that you’ve probably been wanting your uncomfortable and disruptive thoughts to be gone for a while. So, if they are sticking around, there may be a reason on this list that you haven’t thought of.
Your success at work demands that you’re constantly thinking ahead, juggling, planning, problem solving. You don’t want to risk messing up, and you feel your worry and anxiety make sure you don’t.
You are the hub that holds your busy family together. Getting everyone to where they need to go, when they need to be there, with what they need to have, and completing what they need to have completed. You need to be thinking all the time, or things will start to fall apart. Worry and anxiety just come with the territory of being a good parent.
Worrying shows that you care and are keeping problems, yours and others’, front and center in your mind. If you stop worrying, it’ll be like you stop caring.
Or how about these:
You’ve always been really sensitive and intuitive. Although it has its downsides, you’ve always considered it something that made you special. When you feel anxious or worrisome thoughts, it may be a premonition, and you don’t want to risk not listening to it.
Your mom or dad seemed to worry a lot or have anxiety. In a way that is hard for you to explain, you feel more connected to them when you worry or have anxiety too. Especially if they are no longer with you and you miss them.
You grew up vowing not to be __________ (i.e., poor, alcoholic, overweight, sick, unhappy, etc.) like your family. If you aren’t constantly worried and thinking of these things, you’re afraid you may follow in their footsteps.
We humans are complex creatures. At the most core level we operate around two principles: avoid pain and seek pleasure. What we view as pain and pleasure aren't always obvious. Subconsciously we may "hide" important pieces of information from ourselves, or start reinforcing behaviors based on erroneous beliefs.
Getting back to my theory. My theory is that we’ve become convinced that a busy, anxious, ruminating brain is better than risking a calm and potentially dull one. Or, we have deep seated unbeknownst-to-us-beliefs that keep us convinced that our busy, anxious, ruminating brain is better than the unknown of change.
What do you think?