The first step to winning in your mind is to learn to concentrate so you can focus on “thinking about your thinking.” This is a skill called metacognition. Developing this skill will not only give you control over the quality of your thoughts, but enable you to move beyond them at will.
According to Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford University, we have approximately 60,000 thoughts a day. A whopping 90 percent are repeats from yesterday. (Yes, you read that correctly.) And 80 percent of those thoughts are negative. Is it no wonder you see the world the way you do?
This is a grim reality. Those repetitive, negative thoughts come from our default mode network (DMN).1 The DMN, referred to as our ego by Freud and our me network by author and experiential researcher Michael Pollan,2 is responsible for judgment, self-reflection, tolerance, and magical thinking. And it lights up like a Christmas tree from “likes” on social media sites and negative network news, by the way. It’s also the state our minds fall back on when they’re not engaged in any focused tasks. Therefore, the common person whose mind is in a state of rest will ruminate, obsess, fantasize, and freak out in the same damn thought “fear loop” day in and day out, never taking the time to think about the quality, quantity, or attentional direction of their thought patterns. This will go on for years and decades if left unexamined. That’s over 50,000 useless or negative repeat thoughts a day—most of which undermine body-mind wholeness—ping-ponging around your brain every waking minute.
Do me a favor and “think about what you’re thinking about” ten minutes after you read this. Yep, my bet is you are back into the patterns. And tomorrow morning after the blank, beautiful clarity of a new day washes over you as you regain consciousness, pay attention to your thoughts. Do this every morning for the next week. You’re going to be bummed that I am right, and that you didn’t learn how to control this sooner. But it is never too late!
One second, you’re in a complete state of bliss, your mind still and clear. The next, you’re stressing about your thesis or work project, reliving a recent fight with your significant other, irked you still haven’t finished the DIY project cluttering up the garage, or depressed you still don’t fit into those jeans from high school you’ve been holding onto for the last five or fifteen years.
You sit up to shake off the internal chaos.
And then, in an unfortunate plot twist, you remind yourself to be mad about last night’s argument and check your email which triggers the obsessive thinking about work. And you scold yourself for missing the deadline, for the mess in the garage and for being too big for those damn jeans from high school (which, face it, need to go to Goodwill).
Finally, you rise from bed with troubles in hand, wondering why you slept like hell. Again.
For all you know, you slept great. You just “woke like hell.” But give yourself a break. With your DMN thoughts throwing a wet blanket over a potentially perfect day, you never stood a chance.
The default mode network racing out of control is one reason people take up drinking, gambling, binge TV series to no end, or spend their weekends swallowed by their favorite social media site. They’re looking for some peace and quiet inside their mind. Those vices capture the mind and turn it right off.
I’m going to show you how to achieve the serenity you’re seeking without having to binge Battlestar Galactica (an amazing show by the way!) or The Office in its entirety for the sixth time next weekend.
Metacognition develops when you learn to concentrate and begin to disengage from those incessant, negative thoughts, creating space between them and a new observational capacity, which is often called the witness. You develop a sense of being beyond the things you keep thinking about, and you realize that they do not define you. With further development, you will begin to see the underlying beliefs and triggers that created the thought patterns in the first place. And, with dedicated practice, this will enable you to stop the thoughts that aren’t serving you, which, if you recall, is about 80 percent of them.
You will not pull this off, however, by dedicating five minutes every other day to Headspace or another popular mindfulness app. I know what you’re thinking: Mark is mean. It’s the twenty-first century. Why shouldn’t I use one of these cutting edge apps? That’s like thinking you can become an elite athlete with an online fitness app. There is a steep learning curve to mental development, and we need to get up and over it to the shallow part of the slope. I cannot get you there if you rely on crutches.
What kept me going back to the bench? I felt the changes, and I trusted my teacher Master Nakamura. But that didn’t mean I didn’t find it all kinds of frustrating at times. Perhaps because I was miserable in my personal and professional life I felt better after sitting on that darn bench. Also, perhaps I saw it as a challenge and approached sitting on that Zazen bench the same way I did swimming or rowing. In fact, I learned that was a mistake and that mental development does not work the same way as physical. And perhaps my witness felt the peaceful energy of my mentor and wanted me to have some of that. Regardless, you must trust me when I say that learning to focus the mind and separate yourself from your thoughts will feel like an exercise in futility for a long time. Then, one day, you’ll realize the transformation will have occurred, and you’ll look back and wonder when that moment was. This is where it starts to get interesting. So, bear with me here, and you’ll thank me later.
Once you feel mindfulness in action, you’ll be able to examine your thought loops without being triggered or “grabbed” by them. You’ll simply observe (or witness) them rising and falling. That’s when you can start looking for patterns.
Why would I look for patterns?
…Because once you understand your thought patterns, you can stop them before they start wrecking your perfectly sunny day. See how it all comes together?
I had to really hone my metacognition for over a year to get at the root cause of my limiting self-concepts. You’re not good enough…. You’re not good looking enough…. You’re not smart enough…tough enough…. “I’m not enough” was the tagline in every story I told myself, whether it was from my own perspective or someone else’s (a parent, teacher, girlfriend, coworker). “I’m not enough” was grooved into my psyche at a very early age. No, my parents didn’t reiterate it during dinnertime. “Please pass the potatoes, Mark. And don’t forget, you’ll never amount to anything.” It wasn’t that literal. Few things are. But these stories would have been impossible to root out without developing the capacity to think about them with detachment, and then discard them in favor of better options. Our parents or guardians are not evil, not most of them, anyway. What I mean is if we never examine our thoughts and regulate them, all we have is what we’ve learned—and that’s what we pass on, for good and bad.
The constant exposure to the dialogue and subconscious programming of family and peers creates incessant, omnipresent, internal dialogue, imagery, and emotional states that become the never-ending chatter in our mind. I call this our Background of Obviousness or BOO. This chatter, this BOO, becomes our everyday emotional state and life story. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of it. But, once we examine these thoughts that are running, ruining, and raining all over our sunny days, we will then have the power to challenge them…and rewrite them.
Do you accept the premise that you are not your thoughts?
If you answered yes to this question, great! I’m glad you’ve found the blog. And if you answered no, I’m also glad you found the blog. I love a challenge.