“Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box“ sang Mr Lennon, ever so insightfully.
How often our thoughts rattle and swirl uncontrollably inside the letter boxes of our minds. Like over-excitable children dancing around the playground playing tig; one thought triggering another, replacing another in a whole chain of chaos. Before you know it we are thinking of something a million miles away from where we started a few seconds ago. Our synaptic pathways spark off each other at the speed of light, and transport us to a different universe, light years away from our present reality. Until present reality calls us back in from our play-time.
“Bottomley” – what did I just say? – “erm I don’t know, sir” or more likely ” . . . . darling, are you listening to me?”
These free roller-coaster thought rides can be great fun. Up and down, round and round, never being quite sure where we will land. And then the enjoyment of tracing back the thought-link in reverse, retreading the stepping-stones to marvel at the ingenuity of our minds.
Far less enjoyable when our thoughts are uncontrollable monsters trapped in the cage of our heads. Rather than meandering merrily across the open skies of our imagination, they are trapped in one claustrophobic prison cell. However much we try to release them, they obsessively returning to the same place, like moths to the light bulb or alcoholics to the bottle. We simply can’t get that one dominant issue out of our heads – that person, that incident, those words, those memories. We read the same sentence of our book a dozen times to no effect. The TV is on, someone is talking, but we are not listening. We are pre-occupied, enslaved by whatever is on our mind, in our mind, haunting us.
“Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning, on an ever spinning reel” – sang Dusty, in a song which entered my mind from somewhere else a few minutes ago and will probably stay for lunch if not for tea. Such are the windmills of our minds. Ever spinning.
of course, the thought may be exciting, enjoyable, thrilling – something we are looking forward to which fills our head with unqualified anticipated joy. More often, unfortunately, it is an anxiety, a worry, a dread or a feeling of hurt, disappointment, bitterness or anger. Any one of these monsters trapped in the cage of our brains will prowl and roar and demand our attention. Like a baby who will not stop crying. It is as exhausting as it is depressing. A ghost of the past or a spectre of the future.
But we are not our thoughts. We are whole people – mind, body and soul. We are much more than our thoughts. They are our children, they are not us. They can dance and sing and bring much joy. They can shout and yell and throw an ugly tantrum. But we really don’t need to be controlled by them. The lunatics in our heads do not need to take over the asylum. “There’s someone in my head but it’s not me” as Roger put it.
We are not defined by our past wounds or failures. Nor are we defined by future fears or concerns. We are our own present selves – bigger and stronger than our thoughts, memories and imaginings. Our thoughts are transient – restless wind in a letter box – and we really don’t need to act on them or respond to their crazy attention-seeking. We may choose otherwise.
When we have a negative thought, an anxiety, a fear or a bad memory, the amygdala (the part of our mind which controls our “fight or flight” instinct) switches on and kicks into problem-solving mode. It starts to analyse, to diagnose, to work out possible worse-case scenarios and to frantically find a solution. Round and round it goes. Like a man running round the house looking for his keys, rummaging through papers and turning out pockets. Lots of activity and noise, but very little progress.
The problem is this. Our amygdala has volunteered for a task it is unsuitable for and cannot fulfill. Like a small boy who comes round to your house and offers to landscape your garden. You admire his enthusiasm, but you don’t give him a spade, never-mind a mini-JCB. It is underqualified for an emotional task. Check its CV. Chuck it a crossword or a logical problem, devoid of immediate emotional consequences, and it is brilliant. But don’t put a rocket-scientist in charge of the alligator swamp.
Left to its own devices, the amygdala can wreak havoc without ever solving the problem. Like a caged tiger trying to escape, growling and gnawing but getting nowhere. And so the thoughts which pre-occupied us when we woke up, are still stressing us out when we fall into bed. We have made no progress, we are tired and grumpy and unlikely to sleep. In the worse case, we fall into depression, long-term anxiety or some other mental-health condition.
The trick then is to step aside from our thoughts. To observe them without responding to them. We listen to the screaming child demanding our attention and simply say top ourselves “how interesting” rather than leaping into problem-solving. We pause and watch the thoughts enter our heads, and leave again. We ask our amygdala to act on them, respond to them or try to analyse or solve them. Nor do we criticise them or evaluate them. We simply let them come, and let them go. In out and shake it all about.
Easier said than done, and it requires practice. The technique is called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, and I’ve tried it a few times, with variable success. Focusing on something tangible and present can help – such as our breathing. This also helps us reconnect with our bodies, grounding us – tethering the hot-air balloon of our imaginations to something physical. It reminds us that we are more than our thoughts, that the present is reality, and that the past and the future are but unreliable memories and imaginations.
It’s worth a try – clinical trials apparently show that the technique can halve depression and is at least as effective as anti-depressants. And skeptical as I am about so-called “clinical trials” – I suspect there is something in it.
I tried it when I travelled on another small plane this week. The last time I did this I wrestled with claustrophobia and panic, saved only by by i-Pod and determined self-distraction. This time I had a go at saying calmly to myself “how interesting, they have shut the plane door” approach, without thinking of the consequences. I feigned disinterest as Mr Claustrophobia the carnivore came into my head. He had a root around, found nothing to eat, and wandered out again. Maybe the technique worked – maybe It was some other reason. But I wont be analysing that too much either. I flew merrily home, and even managed a coherent conversation with the guy next to me.
Thoughts hey – we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them. But maybe we can learn to swim in them rather than drown in them.
As ever – your comments, scores and likes are most welcome. meanwhile, if the song is in your head, try this version.