Have you ever gotten into your car driven someplace, gotten out of your car, and had no idea what happened in between? Or, sat down to read a book and at the end of the page realized that you had no idea what you had just read? These are two examples of how we check out on our lives, how we can be there and yet not be there at all. Another word for this is mind-wandering, and researchers have found that our minds wander nearly half the time.
The Benefits of Mind-Wandering
The idea that we are sleepwalking through our lives may be disturbing. But there are definitely some benefits. The brain is very efficient in its ability to automate most of what we do. It saves precious resources for paying attention to novel situations.
If we had to decide again and again how to tie our shoes or brush our teeth, we would be overwhelmed, finding it impossible to function. So, once we learn something, it becomes automatic; think typing, riding a bike, or driving.
This capacity for automaticity conserves valuable resources for the brain’s central function of solving problems. While the mind is free to wander, the brain defaults to problem-solving mode. When scientists first discovered this they thought it was great! When we aren’t doing anything else, we can be solving all of our problems.
With this ability to analyze what went wrong and plan for the future, we have been able to avoid tigers, co-operate to protect our tribe, and eventually move from caves into high-rises. The capacity to mind-wander allows us to connect divergent concepts, innovate, create, and imagine untold possibilities.
It has allowed us to become the dominant species on the planet, but it has also caused some problems. As Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had many catastrophes in my life, most of which never happened.”
The Dark Side of Mind-Wandering
When we are not “fully present,” our automatic tendency is to judge our experience as being not quite right – not good enough, or not what we wanted. These judgments can lead us into thought sequences of blaming ourselves and others and leave us stuck in fixed patterns in our minds. When we lose awareness of the present moment, we also lose the freedom to examine alternative courses of action and the ability to choose what action we should take.
This tendency of the mind to worry and ruminate can also have devastating effects on our relationships. According to John Gottman, Ph.D., renowned couples therapist, we can become so lost in our internal dialogue that it can take up to five positive interactions to compensate for one negative one. As a result, we lose our sense of balance.
Mindfulness Can Set Us Free
If we want to regain our freedom, the first step is to pause and acknowledge the reality of the situation without being hooked into automatic tendencies to judge, fix, or want things to be different.
When we train in mindful awareness, we can become conscious that we are stuck in an old pattern. Then, we can learn to take a step back and decide if our first reaction is helpful. At that moment, we have an opportunity to make a healthier choice and forge new pathways and beneficial patterns in the brain.
What mindfulness gives us is the freedom of choice.
Thoughts Are Not Facts
Once we are free from the quicksand of our habitual thought patterns, we can think more creatively and find new solutions and better answers. We come to see that thoughts are just mental events and not facts. We realize that our thoughts and emotions don’t have to dominate our experience.
We can free ourselves from the thought patterns that no longer serve us and create new patterns discover that support our health and happiness, through mindfulness.
Please join me in this adventure of learning to live life more consciously through mindfulness. Sign-Up Today for the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program starting next Thursday at 6:30 pm.