Have you ever gone to bed but found yourself unable to sleep because you can’t stop thinking? There are times I find myself doing just that. This is when I unlock my phone to play a podcast (with a sleep timer). Mind you, I am not actively listening to it, rather I’m merely listening to the podcast as white noise to distract myself, so I can stop thinking, and go to sleep. But this approach doesn’t always work and I often find myself extending the timer.
This is just one instance of when I’ve found myself lost in my thoughts. But, it’s not uncommon for us to do this kind of passive thinking throughout the day as well. It’s when we find ourselves having an internal dialogue in our mind with people or situations from the past. We have this mental commentary running in our head thinking about one thing or another while brushing our teeth, taking a shower, or washing dishes. Why is it we find it so hard to simply be?
Thinking in and of itself isn’t a problem as long as we do it with intention. The problem occurs when we simply think arbitrarily out of laziness that it becomes our default habit unless we are doing something that actively requires our attention.
The point is it’s easy to get addicted to passive thinking. Constant thinking causes the mind to get tired and fatigued. It saps valuable energy and undermines our attention, which in turn deprives us of thinking about what actually matters and disengages us from the present experience. We may be physically present somewhere, but we are mentally elsewhere.
The purpose of the mind is to think. The problem is, most of the time we let our monkey mind take over our intelligence and values, but we can always choose to change the direction of our thoughts.
Ideally, our intelligence is the leash that should control the mind, but more often it doesn’t. We don’t do things we know we should do because we let our minds take over our intelligence.
Here are some ideas (in no particular order) that have helped me overcome this overthinking habit.
Firstly, it’s not the mind that is the problem, but the unpleasantness with things we have identified with — something that affects our mental state to the point we can’t stop thinking of it. The moment we identify ourselves with something we are not, we’re finished. For instance, if we find it difficult to sleep at night because of this internal mindless chatter, it could be that there was something that occurred during the day that we identified with, which stuck with us.
One thing we can do is ask ourselves once every hour “where is our attention?”. This isn’t about controlling our minds as much as it’s about bringing our awareness to it. Once we have awareness of the present, passive thoughts tend to disperse. We can build a daily mindfulness practice to keep us in the moment and out of our thoughts. It would help if we stopped classifying our thoughts as positive and negative and instead simply thinking of them as thoughts.
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle reminds us when we find our mind dilly-dallying in passive thinking at night, it’s time to get in touch with our body (something tangible). It turns out body awareness is a powerful anchor for our state of presence. It takes our attention away from thinking and focuses our mind on our body instead. When we use our body as an anchor, we’ll find our thinking slows down and attention drifts away from our thoughts. We have the power to choose where to direct our attention. Thoughts have power over us only when we believe they are real. We need to distance ourselves from our thoughts, so it no longer has us in its grip.
When we find ourselves repeatedly thinking about something, maybe we ought to capture it externally and think about it later while giving it our full attention, so we can be in the here and now.
We spend way more time thinking than we should. Our mind’s default habit is to think of everything that comes our way as nails that need to be hammered, when in reality we should store the nails (thoughts) away safely after prying them loose.
The thing to remember is we are neither our bodies nor our minds. We are peaceful and divine souls. We don’t want peace of mind, rather peace from it. For the vast majority of time, we can give our mind a rest, while only using it when it’s actually needed; this reminds me of my earlier writing, where I wrote about how we need to give our mind a break from constant stimulation. If we are always “on”, we are never on.
We can defer all judgement about the external as we surrender ourselves to the present moment. When we start being mindful of our attention, we can still hear the external noise, but the loudest thing is now silent.