The verdict is in. Casey Anthony was found not guilty for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
While some went about their day unaffected by this news, many more were outraged by this acquittal.
One normally-even-tempered friend of mine was particularly angry. “How can they just let her go? A little girl is dead and now her killer is just going to walk away! It just makes me sick, ” she typed furiously.
Regardless of whether or not Anthony should have been found guilty, something interesting was happening in my friend’s—and the millions of other Casey Anthony-watchers who experienced these emotions and became obsessed with the story—head. One moment she was relaxed, and then, after seeing just one news story, she was furiously posting Facebook messages that declared her disgust for our legal system.
How did this one piece of information—albeit a very horrible one—ruin her mood?
The problem is that she couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’m sure you can relate—we’ve all been consumed by a piece of news. As you know, human beings think almost constantly. But much of what we consider “thinking” is actually us reacting to what we encounter in our daily lives. We automatically and unconsciously evaluate people, ideas—heck, even fashion—and virtually anything else as being good, bad or neutral.
We silently judge.
Each judgment is associated with positive or negative emotions. One piece of news may make us giggle, while another makes us want to cry. Of course, our overall happiness is affected by these unceasing judgments and thoughts.
Here’s how it happens: One psychological experiment seated participants in front of a computer and gave them a subliminal message: four words that appeared for just 250 milliseconds. The words were positive, negative or neutral (words like “friends”, “war”, or “building,” respectively). Similar subliminal messages were repeated for a total of approximately 20 seconds. After receiving these messages, participants completed questionnaires to report their current mood. The results of the study showed that participants were in a good or bad mood depending on whether they were subliminally shown positive or negative words.
We make automatic judgments about the things we encounter, which then impacts our mood. Indeed, if this can happen in just 20 seconds with subtle subliminal messages, imagine how our happiness is affected when everyone around us is talking about the gruesome Casey Anthony verdict!
Does this mean that we are destined to suffer just because we think and have opinions?
Absolutely not. We’re capable of transcending the harmful effects of ceaseless thought; we can experience the present moment without feeling bombarded by our racing mind.
Of course, it’s very difficult to control your thoughts. But an important path to happiness is to be able to harness your mind to stop distressing thoughts. Clinical psychologists have developed techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help change the way their clients think. This approach is effective in treating depression and anxiety.
We can also control how we perceive our thinking. Contemplate this: thoughts are just thoughts.
Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and bestselling author, suggests a radical act of self-discovery: watch the thinker.. Consider the idea that you are separate from the relentless parade of thoughts in your mind. Imagine that you are the awareness of these thoughts; you can watch what the thinker says without emotionally reacting.
Try it right now. Ask yourself, “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?” Go ahead and try it. What happened?
You may have noticed that focusing your awareness on the thinker makes him or her (AKA you) quite shy! You got stage fright. When the spotlight of your awareness shines, your thoughts slow down or stop. Bingo! You’re in control of your mind.
Constant mental chatter is often the reason that people quit meditating. But meditation is one of the best ways to understand and control your thoughts. Mindfulness meditation will help you watch the thinker with precision and consistency. Try it by directing your attention and awareness toward your experience in the present moment5. Here is the beauty and power of mindfulness: your attention can be on the present moment at any time, even if you feel completely scatterbrained.
With practice and patience, you can learn to calmly observe your thoughts as they arise. For example, suppose that while meditating you begin thinking about what you are going to eat for dinner. At that point, silently note to yourself, “Hmm . . . Right now I’m thinking about what to have for dinner tonight . . . Interesting.” This recognition of thought is neutral and factual; it is the same way you might notice a new leaf on a plant that you are growing.
No matter how many times thoughts emerge, we can acknowledge them mindfully. This isn’t a failure or delay in the practice of mindfulness meditation; it is the practice. In time, you’ll be able to direct your attention toward other components of the present moment like breath, bodily sensations or sound.
Unfortunately, most people get discouraged and impatient when they have disruptive thoughts during meditation. Take the example of thinking about what to have for dinner. It’s easy to get emotionally swept up on a train of thought, conducted by the relentless thinker: “Argh! I’m thinking about what to have for dinner! I just want to have some quiet time to meditate! I can’t do this. Thoughts just keep racing through my head!”
We don’t have to ride this thought train. With mindfulness meditation and awareness, we can simply watch the train and the thinker pass us by as they ride off into the sunset.
Constant thought is a fog that obscures our view of reality. We step out of the fog when we declare that we are not our thoughts.
We, as humans, are separate from our mental clutter.
Through techniques like mindfulness meditation, you may discover that there is so much more to the present moment than listening to the thinker and emotionally reacting to what she says.
As your thought fog clears, you’ll find happiness in new and exciting places that were once impossible to see.
Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462–479. Chartrand, T. L., van Baaren, R. B., Bargh, J. A. (2006). Linking automatic evaluation to mood and information processing style: Consequences for experienced affect, impression formation, and stereotyping. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135, 70-77. Tolin, D. F. (2010). Is cognitive–behavioral therapy more effective than other therapies?: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 710-720. Tolle, E. (1997). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Novato, CA: New World Library. Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 211-237.
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