Dr Joanne Stuart
Controlling Unhelpful Thoughts
The 'Observing Mind' and the 'Thinking Mind'
You may have heard the term ‘mindfulness’. One way of explaining this is in terms of the Observing Mind and the Thinking Mind. The Thinking Mind is something which switches on from the moment we wake up and it continues throughout the day. We think about the future, the past, what we are going to eat, what we are going to do that day, conversations, what people are saying, what people think, etcetera. Off it goes from the moment we wake up, and we hardly get any rest from it until the moment that we go to sleep.
There is another part of our mind which we call the Observing Mind, which is the part of the mind that uses the senses in order to be in the present moment. We might use the example of people who enjoy walking: they may walk up a hill and then suddenly at the top see a beautiful scene of countryside that goes on for miles and miles, and in that moment they stop and just look at what they can see. It is not that they are thinking about the view but they are experiencing the view through the sense of sight. Or it might be that we walk out into the garden or from our front door and hear birdsong, so we may stop and listen to the birdsong. It is not that we are thinking about the birdsong, it is just that we are using our hearing sense to listen to the birdsong.
In those Observing Mind moments, it is not that we are thinking about what we are doing, it is that we are using our senses to experience whatever is happening in that moment. Everyone has something which they become immersed in: it may be watching our children play, going for a walks, playing a musical instrument, cooking or gardening. We all recognised that in those moments, we have a moment of calm.
What psychologists have noticed is that children are using their Observing Mind far more than they are using their Thinking Mind. If you ask a child who is young enough ‘what are you thinking about?’ they will describe what they are doing or what they see or what they hear. At some point we lose this and the Thinking Mind becomes the more prominent mind that we use. During our teenage years we use the Observing Mind less and less, and through a lack of use we lose the ability to be able to use it.
It is very difficult to develop the Observing Mind; studies have shown that even Buddhist Monks who spend hours a day meditating or being ‘mindful’ find it very difficult to focus or use their Observing Mind all of the time. The Thinking Mind comes in and it takes over. We have evolved to think; thinking is a survival mechanism. We need to think about the past in order to learn from it and we need to think about the future in order to plan for it and overcome any difficulties that we may face.
In order to harness the Observing Mind there are a number of strategies that we can use:
· You might sit in the room that you are in and you might spend a few minutes just describing to yourself exactly what you see. Do not think about what you see, just name the colours, the patterns, the structure, the size, etc. We may have been in a particular room multiple times but not actually taken in every detail.
· You might spend a few minutes listening to noises. Generally, we are not aware of noises until we actually tune into them. They do not have to be prominent noises, it does not have to be birdsong. It could just be the sound of the creaking of buildings, the sound of air-conditioning or the sound of breathing, talking or laughter.
Developing the Observing Mind does not have to be something that you sit down to do for forty minutes each day, although the research does suggest that this can bring significant benefits. In our busy lives it can be difficult for anyone to do this. But setting a reminder on your phone every hour just to spend a few moments observing what is going on around you and using your senses to be in the moment and stop the thinking thoughts. Then when we are in a very difficult situation and we find that our thoughts are incredibly unhelpful and we would like to stop them we can use this strategy in order to help us distract from our unhelpful thoughts.