Bar News - September 7, 2007
By: Betsy Black
Observing the Mind: Mindfulness and the Ticker Tape
They are far-reaching and consume much of our time and energy. They often define our attitudes. They cause us to love, to hate, to sue, to forgive, to make decisions, large and small, every day. They are our thoughts, the words, phrases, imagery and other presentations that go through our minds. You cannot hold a thought in your hand—and yet thoughts seem so tangible.
Mindfulness is a term that refers to being deliberately conscious and aware of what we experience, even inside our own minds. We can practice watching our minds and thus come to realize that our thoughts are just thoughts. As my law professor at Pierce Law Center, Joe Dickinson once said, “Thinking doesn’t make it so.” One image likens thoughts to clouds in the sky. Clouds come and clouds go while the sky remains. Similarly thoughts come and thoughts go, while the mind, the observer, remains.
Meditation thus is a mind-development tool. Lawyers question, analyze, and don’t accept things as they are presented. Why should our own thought patterns be any exception? Mindfulness of this kind offers a powerful tool for increasing mental capacity by decreasing the hold that passing thoughts can have on us.
A brief consideration of the question, “How many thoughts does an individual have each day” yields answers ranging from 12,000 to 60,000. Amazingly, one statistic suggests that 95 percent of the thoughts we have are repetitious.
One way to think of repetitious thoughts is as a ticker tape. Invented in the late 1800s, the ticker tape provided the first mechanical way of transmitting stock prices over long distances. The ticker ran constantly, and still does, modernized with computers, and faster than ever. You can think of your reoccurring thoughts as a ticker tape, running through your mind, over and over, in a continuous loop.
Another way to think about thoughts is to observe how they can build upon each other in a nonproductive way. In Slowing Down to the Speed of Life, authors Richard Carlson and Joseph Bailey, label this pattern “thought attacks” when the thoughts are unhelpful and spiral into a state of negative urgency. An example of this pattern would be the following thought sequence based on the scenario that your teenager is late coming home: “Tim is always late. He’s so inconsiderate. I’m so worried. What if he’s hurt? Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I wasn’t around for him enough when he was a child. I’m such a bad parent.” The objective reality here is simply that Tim is late. While you may not identify with this particular thought sequence, observe whether your mind races in this manner in other situations.
Ironically, we may be most apt to consider major decisions when we are in low spirits, having a negative “thought attack” and thus operating at less than our optimum capacity. “Despite the common tendency to analyze our lives when we are in a low mood, our best option is to actually do nothing,” Carlson and Bailey note.
The book champions the value of non-linear thinking in conjunction with linear thinking, hence the title. It’s a great reminder to use both sides of the brain in furtherance of work and personal life. Carlson and Bailey state, “Remember your thoughts are just thoughts. They cannot harm, frighten, or overwhelm you without your consent.”
What do you do to manage unproductive thoughts? One method espoused by these authors and by those who suggest meditation, is to simply observe your thoughts, to watch them much as you might watch clouds cross a blue sky. While it may seem counter-intuitive, mere observation can significantly lessen the hold of negative thought patterns. Another strategy is to write down what you are thinking; this process can help reveal the ridiculousness of your thoughts. Then write the objective reality and/or a more positive view of things.
I love and appreciate an apt bumper sticker. Here’s one on this point: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Betsy Black, J.D., A.C.C., is an accredited life coach who specializes in working with lawyers seeking greater satisfaction in their work and personal lives. Please direct your thoughts, questions and requests for future topics of this monthly column to her at email@example.com or 603/228-6195.