Most of us go around thinking thoughts detrimental to our own happiness, Ayya Khema points out in Know where you’re going.
In other words we get lost in thoughts which repeat fears, anxieties, regrets and resentments. Very often these concern issues we can no longer do anything about because they are in the past or because they haven’t yet happened. In mindfulness we try to get good at coming out of this painful mind-wandering whenever we notice we are lost in it. We do this by shifting awareness to whatever is going on in the present moment, even if that is just to our own breathing.
We can also come out of painful mind-wandering by accepting what we have to accept (perhaps a loss we’ve sustained) or that isn’t worth fighting (rain when we wanted sunshine, say). This isn’t to say that we should never entertain painful thoughts. Life contains plenty of painful events that need attention or that have had a strong impact and continue to affect us for some time. It’s making a habit of getting lost in gloom that we have to look out for – and because one of the brain’s primary functions is to keep us out of trouble, we very easily slip into thinking about threats in the future or losses from the past. This includes going over painful events from which we have already, so to speak, sucked the marrow dry. And it includes exaggerated, upsetting thoughts about the future which so often don’t turn out the way we feared. Too much of this can have a very detrimental effect on a person’s well-being and quality of life.
But when we’re mindful we can spot what’s going on and we can return to awareness of the actual reality around us or even to doing some logical planning (as opposed to fantasising) about future events. We return to that awareness as I said above by bringing our attention to our breath, to our body or to what we are physically doing.
This is well worth practising and the more you practise the better you will be at it. Stepping out of automatic pessimistic thinking is one of the great gifts of mindfulness.
Ayya Khema, born in Berlin in 1923 was a Buddhist teacher. Her Jewish family escaped the Nazi persecution. She was best known for promoting the position of women in Buddhism. She was the author of many books. She died in 1997.
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