According to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, one of foremost brain research centers in the world, the average person has 70,000 thoughts each and every day. That translates to about 25 and a half million thoughts each year. That is an awful lot of thinking! The really startling thing about that is not just the sheer number of automatic thoughts, but that we have so little awareness of what we regularly think. If we took an assessment of our thoughts we might shudder to discover how many of those thoughts, albeit some very, very brief thought impulses, contain the seeds of negative stressful thoughts such as worry, anxiety, fear, upset, frustration, or confusion.
The popular expression that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” attributed by Donald Hebb, considered the father of neuropsychology, means that our neurons can combine to form larger cell networks after repeated stimulation. So if we think a lot of negative anxious, stress related thoughts, those nerve cells triggered by those thoughts will combine and form larger neural networks of stress related thoughts. It is like a snowball rolling down a snow-covered mountain picking up size and speed After a while, it will become a large snow boulder. The structure of our brain changes based upon how we continually think and feel. Our behavior as a result might then be altered by our habitual thinking before we even realize it. We become at the mercy of our thinking or what neuroscientist David Eagleman calls our zombie systems, running automatically below our conscious mind.
We may be feeling anxious and don’t realize all of the anxiety producing thoughts and thought patterns rolling through our minds. It reminds me of a dialogue from the movie The Blues Brothers where one of the brothers is talking to the other one as the walls of his apartment are violently rattling. He lives in a Chicago low rent district apartment which happens to also be next to train tracks. One brother asks the other, “How often do the trains run by?” The answer: “So often you won’t even notice it.” It is the same with the thoughts running through our minds. Our train of thoughts flow apparently so constantly that we often get lost in our thoughts not noticing many of them.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had a GPS for our minds so we never could get lost on our thought trains?
That is where mindfulness of our thoughts or thought watching can help. That is the GPS for our minds. Of course we cannot mind all 70,000 of those daily thoughts, but we can be more attentive to and start thinking about what we are thinking about to get a sense of our patterns of thinking. Why is this important? With every thought you think, even ones as brief as a millisecond, the potential is there for them over time to have a physical impact on the neural structure of the brain It will happen automatically without our awareness because our minds are wired in a default state. But the really exciting thing is that with a bit of mindfulness of thoughts, we can consciously use our mind to monitor what we are thinking and change our thought patterns if we choose to. This can literally change our brain and is the proven science of neuroplasticity. Our brains are malleable and therefore able to be shaped to change their structure throughout our lifespan. We can literally build new neural connections until we are well into old age. Yet if we are not aware of our thoughts, they can literally change our brain circuitry to the detriment of our health like a train that can suddenly jump the tracks if it is going too fast around a sharp turn.
Watching our thoughts and reflecting on the thought patterns we observe would be like a station master monitoring all of the incoming and outgoing trains in the station to maintain a safe and smooth running operation. We certainly need not watch every one of those 70,000 thoughts, but it helps to be aware of our habitual thoughts and patterns and how they affect our well-being.
How can we activate mindfulness to train our minds to monitor more of what we are thinking?
One way is to take a tip from one of the main characters of the Harry Potter book series. Professor Albus Dumbledore used a large stone basin called a pensieve whenever he had too many thoughts swirling around in his head. A pensieve is an object that allows one to siphon off excess thoughts from one’s mind in order to look at them from a different vantage point. It helps one reflect and notice connections, similarities, or if the thoughts serve you. Since we may also have lots of thoughts swirling around in our minds at any one time, practicing mindfulness of our thoughts helps us to naturally slow down our thinking which allows new insights (thoughts) to rise to the surface. The energy of our thoughts is redirected into the energy of insights and we start seeing thought patterns and our habitual ways of thinking unfold. Often times we also see the roots of the thoughts which might be called the sponsoring thoughts. That is when real change happens.
For us to monitor our thoughts, it all starts at the train station. At this train station, however, we probably won’t find a pensieve or the Howarts Express unless we happen to be visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, but we can watch our thought trains with a little bit of mindful awareness and a thought watching exercise.
Mindfulness Thought Watching Exercise:
Find a comfortable spot to settle in to and sit with your back straight relaxing your neck and shoulders. Imagine you are seated outside on a platform at a very busy train station. As you look around, you notice a multitude of trains coming into the station and many trains leaving the station. There are many people coming off the trains and other passengers boarding the trains. You get the idea, it is a very busy train station. Then it dawns on you how similar this train station is to your mind. Both have a lot of activity going on and if you are not paying attention, you can get lost in the train station just as you can get lost in your mind.
Notice how some of your thoughts, like trains, come into the station of your mind very fast and loudly with their whistles blasting. Other thoughts, like smaller trains, come in more slowly.
Also notice how some thoughts get stuck and tend to hang around your mind for a while like trains hanging out in the station for a long while. When you notice yourself getting stuck on some thoughts, gently send them on their way with an imaginary wave of a flag like a station helper might use. You may also notice some of your thoughts are linked together like a row of train coal cars all of the same color and all carrying the same kind of materials. Rows of negative, positive, or neutral thoughts.
Be mindful not to get on any of the trains; just watch them from the platform. If you do find yourself boarding a train or speeding by the station on a train accidentally, gently guide your attention back to the seat on platform watching the trains. Be gentle with yourself because it is very common for people to get distracted by your thoughts, even people who have been practicing mindfulness and meditation for many years.
If you notice a lot of distressing or unpleasant thoughts, first allow them to enter your train station, but only long enough to notice them, then send them on their way out again. You needn’t try to change the thoughts in that moment. Just allow them to pass. But as you stop and reflect and then notice some distressing thought patterns later on, you could imagine yourself switching the train tracks to allow those patterns to shift away to make room for some more pleasant and empowering thought trains.
Try this watching the thought train exercise as often as you need to in order to really start thinking about what you are thinking about. Do not be alarmed by the number of negative or even neutral thoughts. It is just how our brains have been wired for millions of years. But the first step in breaking old disempowering thought patterns is to notice them. Once you do that, you open the door to some bright new sparkling thought trains to enter your station.