The brain and all its mental events is a super awesome show. It's not the only show in town.
I was struck while walking in the local park with my dogs, by the sight of one of our local homeless park dwellers shouting loudly while waving his fists at the sky with passers-by - making sure they put a fair amount of room between themselves and him and studiously avoiding eye contact. What struck me was the fact that he is no different from you or I, except that he does out loud what most of us are doing continuously in our heads and don’t consider strange at all.
We all have that inner voice narrating our lives (very often quite a cruel and harsh voice too), telling us how we could do something better or reminding us that we did not take certain things into account, or judging our interactions with others – yet we do not consider this odd. Often we would not use the tone or language in our heads even on our worst enemies and yet we allow ourselves to be governed by this malevolent dictator.
Most of the time this behaviour is so normal to us that we are completely unaware of how negatively this voice impacts on various aspects of our lives, most notably our levels of stress, our self-esteem and of course, our peace of mind.
This “negativity bias” has been hardwired into us through the evolutionary process to ensure that we remember things that are bad for us so that we don’t inadvertently do them again – unfortunately, this gives us very little scope to remember the positive encounters we may have. Take a moment to think back through your day and see which events are best remembered, is it the small moment of happiness you experienced at one point, or the five negative moments that were also present in your day?
One of the benefits of establishing a mindfulness practice is that we, (over time and through the practice of meditation) become aware of our thoughts and the busyness of our minds. We start to notice how our thoughts are reflected in our bodies, how our shoulders tense up toward our ears, our chest feels tight, our breathing shallow and perhaps our heart rate increases when the thoughts in our head start to hurt us. We notice how we flinch at ourselves. We also learn that thoughts are just thoughts and the mind is constantly busy, that the ability to notice more neutrally when the thoughts arise and dissipate, when the nasty inner critic starts to pull us in toward that space of inadequacy and fear closes us down, down the rabbit hole of judgement and disapproval.
Just the act of noticing, being aware of these thoughts as they come and go, labelling them as “thoughts” can provide us with the perspective needed to not get caught up, to see the thoughts for what they are – as harmless and as concrete as the fluffy white clouds drifting across a clear blue sky. This awareness can help us to befriend these thoughts, to marvel at our minds' ability to conjure up all of this magical thinking and not to be drawn in to believing that our thoughts are who we are, that we have to give in to their power to make us feel less than adequate.
You could try this short practice as an experiment: Bring all of your attention to the breath, as it enters your body, allowing the breath to find its natural rhythm without trying to force yourself to breath in a certain way, just noticing the breath coming in… and the breath going out (you can even say the words if it is helpful, in …. and out). As you pay attention to the breath, you may notice that the voice in your head gets busy, there may be some judgement around how well (or badly) you are doing this, or perhaps you become aware that you are being critical over how you can’t sit still for even one breath, or that you feel you may never be able to meditate, just become aware of what that voice is saying to you and how you are responding. Perhaps even becoming curious about the voice, not what is being said, but the voice itself – it may even be helpful to give it a name, something silly or rude, and when it arises allowing yourself to smile and acknowledge “oh there you are again ol' grumples” and then allow the thoughts to simply pass you by without getting caught up in the content, simply watching the thoughts as they move through your mind, like the clouds in the sky or a stick washing along in a stream. When you notice that your body is responding with sensations of tightness or tension, become aware that this is happening and simply bring your attention back to the breath again.
NOTE: If you have trouble accessing your breath, the same exercise can be done by using the feet or the hands as the anchor for your attention, noticing the feeling of their contact with the surface on which they are resting and any sensations that may arise in that area.