Critical Thought and the Second Level of Awareness

In my last post, I mentioned that our experience of our thoughts is very REAL. This means that we do actually have the critical, negative, hurtful thoughts that we experience and they can harm us and cause us suffering. It's quite common; this is our reality. These thoughts, however, are not necessarily TRUE, and the ability to which they can harm us is more closely linked to how much truth we attribute to them, than the reality of the thoughts themselves. 

I will explain further. The brain is a thought machine. Its job is to constantly churn out thoughts, much like that ticker tape you see running at the bottom of news feeds on TV. For a multitude of different possible reasons (that I won't go into here, because they vary according to each unique individual's temperament and experience) many of these thoughts happen to be critical thoughts. I'll say it again: EVERYONE experiences critical thoughts. The potential for these types of thoughts to wreak havoc on our psyches is directly related to how much truth we attribute to them. For example, if I had the thought: "I am unworthy of love and kindness from others" (level one) and I next assign truth to this (a level two action), I am giving that thought a tremendous amount of power and allowing it to do damage to self-worth. I am effectively arming that thought; this is dangerous for me. Someone else may have the exact same thought and be able to dismiss it due to protective factors: They may practice non-attachment and let it drift by without clinging to it (a skill honed through meditation), they may counter it with a healthy thought (ie. I give love and kindness, therefore I am worthy of receiving love and kindness from others...a CBT technique), or they might check-in with a trusted person who can counter it for them (I call this "checking the facts"). The bottom line:

It's what we do on this "second level" of awareness that matters. We all have the level one critical thoughts. What we DO with those thoughts--how we think about and story the sum total of these thoughts--is what really matters for our mental health. 

The same can be said when we zoom out and examine the reality of our lives as they currently exist. The reality of what we're doing with our lives matters much less than the story we tell ourselves about what we're doing with our lives. I'll provide another example to illustrate:

You take a day off from going to the gym or exercising (level one); Do you write the story that you were lazy and worthless, do you write the story that you listened to your body and rested, or maybe you write a story that exists somewhere in between? (all options for level two awareness actions)

In this case, taking the day off, in and of itself, is not the issue. The actual event has little affect on you. The way this real life, level one, event is storied, however, has great implications for what happens the next day. Before long, patterns of thinking and then behaviors take over. (Energy follows thought! More on that in my next post).

At issue here is the fact that the brain is "plastic," meaning it can be changed throughout the lifespan. We're able to remember this easily when it comes to how we approach impressionable children, but we wrongly assume that it gets fixed at a certain point. The types of thoughts to which we attach, further carve out grooves that make it more likely that we will use those harmful neural channels in the future.

If you're like me, you probably find this both scary and relieving (Ha! Awareness of multiple level two options where I choose to hold both). By practicing mindfulness around the types of thoughts we're attaching to, we can decide which channels we utilize. This means that the longer we can break the pattern of going down the channels of critical thought, the easier it will be to use other, more positive, channels. Eventually your brain will not so quickly default to the critical, harmful story. 

As a way of just starting to practice this concept today,  try to differentiate between the two levels. Are you aware of what's happening on both level one and level two? This is a mindfulness practice. The act of separating reality from the story of your reality is an AWESOME first step.

After you do this, you can begin to open up awareness to other possible stories, and then selectively attend to those that are most helpful and healthy for you. Remember, you get to decide what is true.

Mindfulness as Daily Practice

One of the simplest and most easily accessible definitions I've come across for "mindfulness" is "the mind observing itself". It's for this reason that mindfulness is made available to us in what I call "micro-moments" (quick moments of awareness) throughout the day. In this way, mindfulness can become a daily practice, interwoven into the franticness of our daily lives.

For a long time I sought grounding and peace through a daily morning meditation; that is, focused and set periods of time sitting on a meditation cushion, attempting to clear my mind of distracting thoughts by practicing non-attachment to whatever would enter the cognitive space. While this proved to be an interesting exercise in discipline and patience, I found that the meditation did not necessarily carry over into the rest of my day.

One day, after describing my daily process for trying to stay present/aware to a psychiatrist friend/mentor, he challenged me to try something different. I had been describing a pattern that I was working to fix:

"I find myself frequently rushing through the day, so focused on what's next or where I'm supposed to be that I miss out on the present moment. Sometimes at the end of the day, I wonder if I've really been there for anything I did. I'm getting through life, but that's not good enough; I want to experience life. I feel calm at the end of my meditation sessions in the morning, but then I feel like I get thrusted into the rapidly moving current of the day. I become so focused on the next thing, that I never have the opportunity to look around and appreciate the scenery."

His response:

"The next time you find yourself in a hurry, don't do anything. Just note, either in your head or maybe even by saying out out loud: 'wow, I'm really in a hurry right now'. Don't attempt to stop and meditate, don't do any intervention, just acknowledge what's happening in the moment." [hence, the mind observing itself]

Amazingly, this quick acknowledgement proved quite effective. I began to notice that simply acknowledging what was happening ("I'm in a hurry") began to help me slow down, breathe, and bring more presence to the current moment. What happened is I would inevitably slow down. It didn't take 20 minutes, it didn't require a meditation cushion, and it could be applied anywhere and under any conditions.

So, I invite you to try this. If you need help, set a watch or phone alarm to go off at a few key times throughout your day. Or, pick a recurring daily activity (maybe washing your hands). When this stimulus happens, allow the mind to observe itself. What's happening for you in those moments?

Are you in a hurry?

Are you feeling inadequate or like a failure?

Are you being critical of yourself?

Are you loving yourself? 

Do you feel strong and capable?

Notice the thing, whatever it is, and treat it with non-judgment and non-attachment. The acknowledgement itself is the intervention. 

Finally, remember that the thoughts you notice are REAL but they are not necessarily TRUE. (More on that for my next post...)

Tara Brach's free podcasts have been getting a lot of air time for me lately, thanks to a good recommendation from a therapist friend in Portland. They helped inspire this post. Check them out HERE.

I'll end with this quote from the Dalai Lama:

" so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived."