Is your mind is full? Do you feel flooded with racing thoughts, images, ideas, memories? It can sometimes feel like there is no room for anything else in there. Feeling too full in the mind often goes with feeling charged up (not in a pleasant way) in the body, and there are usually unpleasant feelings attached. If you have ever suddenly realized what you are thinking is making you feel bad, you are not alone.
The practice of mindfulness helps people to notice the contents and processes of the mind. Sitting quietly and just being with yourself is a way to directly access the mind. But I know people who find it overwhelming, especially if they think they are supposed to “quiet the mind.” We all start in different places. For people who feel “full up” in the mind, another strategy is called for.
If there is no space in your mind, you can pay attention to what IS in your mind. To start, you can label your process as “thinking.”
“Thinking.” Just noting that you are thinking may help you separate a bit from it. If just adding the label isn’t enough, you can notice the categories. What is the CONTENT of this “thinking?” Lists? Memories? Fantasies? Imagined conversations? Redecorating the living room? What are the contents that fill your inner space? When you can start to notice the contents and categorize them, then you have created a bit of space to witness your own mental activities.
So if I notice that my mind is busy making lists (things to do, what to get at the grocery store, reminders of tasks) then I have stepped out of the content for a moment, at least long enough to see….oh, yes, I am “thinking,” specifically, I am making lists.
If I am busy reliving last night’s party, then I can note that – ah, yes, I am remembering. If I can observe and label, then I am witnessing my own process. I am not in the thought, but outside of it.
As a witness to my mind, I can decide how I want to interact with those contents. If I remember that somebody was unpleasant to me at the party, I can decide if I want to stay with that memory and maybe regenerate some unpleasant feelings. By labeling the content as “memory”, I make distance from the thought, and then I am in charge of myself. Otherwise, my mind may run away with me into a waterfall of unpleasant memories and emotional distress.
If that’s already happened, and I am overwhelmed with thoughts that feel upsetting, I can notice it. I can become aware that there is a rush of thoughts and feelings cascading through my mind and body. Perhaps I notice it is like a river in full flood, with logs and debris and crashing brown water barreling through my mind. If I can notice that, I might be able to rise above this river and observe the flow, becoming a witness to this internal process of thoughts, feelings, and reactions. I am no longer in the river, but observing it.
When I have stepped back from the surging river, I have changed my relationship to it. I am no longer in danger of drowning, although I can still feel and think everything I was feeling and thinking before. I am out of danger. Through paying attention to my process, I can predict where I might get pulled in again, and remind myself to stay on the banks, Staying out of the river isn’t about controlling thoughts or feelings; it is about compassionately observing your process as you experience those thoughts and feelings, watching the river in full spate, and watching as it slows and clears and calms. This is a way that space opens up in the mind.
Learning to make friends with your mind takes attention and compassion for yourself. Like any kind of training, it takes practice. When my mind is in charge of me, I am lost in my thinking processes. When I am in charge, I can observe what happens without getting lost in the process. I can decide to watch my thoughts or to jump in the water with them. Either way, there is an exquisite freedom to owning your own mind.