Unhelpful Thoughts: How we get hooked and unhooked

I just finished a 20-minute mindfulness meditation. I almost always feel better after I practice mindfulness in such a formal way.  In this practice, I paid attention, on purpose, to the feel of the breath as it moved through my body. Thoughts came and thoughts interrupted, but once I noticed I was being taken away from paying attention to my breath, I came back ... over and over again. I felt renewed.

Mindfulness meditation can feel like a mini-vacation. You don’t have to worry, you don’t have to think; all you have to do is pay attention to your breath. But what happens when you are actively engaging in life and suddenly you’re highjacked by unhelpful thoughts, regrets, or worries? No matter how much, how long, or how often one meditates, thoughts quickly hook us in, often resulting in a lack of attention, a disconnection, or sudden feelings of sadness, guilt, fear, worry, or shame. Generally these thoughts have something to do with the past, which already happened, or the future, which hasn’t happened yet. Either way, they take us away from the present and cause a lot of suffering along the way.

So, how do you unhook from unhelpful thoughts?

In daily living, just like in meditation, you unhook by observing where your thoughts took you (“That’s interesting. I’m starting to feel sad").  Be curious about all the elements of unease (“I wonder why I feel so sad all of the sudden”).  Acknowledge the life cycle of all thoughts and feelings (they all eventually pass). And finally, you unhook by gently guiding your attention back to whatever you are doing, whether it be talking to a friend, attending a board meeting, studying for an exam, or spending time with your kids. Your thoughts take you away, and you come back, over and over again.

Wherever your body is, that’s where your mind can be, too.  Be present and feel renewed.