- You can be overwhelmed, and react to it without even feeling overwhelmed.
- Thoughts moving so fast you don't even know you've had them can lead you to make choices you'd regret - if you had known you'd made them.
- The way to understand the first two of these points is to be able to slow down those fast moving thoughts, and have them emerge into conscious awareness.
Best way to explain what I'm about is to construct a situation with which virtually everyone is likely familiar.
Imagine your flat or house - the place you call home. There are dishes in the sink, books, magazines, and newspapers strewn across the living room room, beds are unmade, and empty coffee cups and drink bottles may be found everywhere (except in the trash). Clothes are waiting to be put away or thrown into the laundry basket.
You survey the room to room mess and, quite rationally, head to the kitchen for a coffee.
Waiting for the coffee to warm, you decide you can at least wash two or three dishes. You begin the dishes, and you're in an easy state, hands occupied while you wait for the coffee.
A thought, like a falling meteor streaks across your consciousness. It's an awareness that you are doing something to make a difference in how your place works. Whoa, where did that thought come from?
Perhaps you had the thought because you've been reading up on mindfulness, and trying to practice mindfulness exercises. Or maybe, you've always had such thoughts, but never noticed them.
"Perhaps there's something to this mindfulness stuff, after all," you say to yourself.
Then, as though your mind is replaying thoughts from some time ago, maybe even the last time you looked at the clutter around you, you realize that every time there's a tiny wee thought suggesting you might clean up the living room, there's a series other thoughts, which are so fast you usually don't even see them as they trace their way along that fuzzy line which separates conscious awareness from "just out of the consciousness."
These thoughts, in reaction to the tiny thought you might clean something up, are along the lines of, "oh, I wouldn't know where to start," "it'll be hard to get all this done," "I'll feel better if I get lost in Ian Rankin's latest mystery," and so on.
Interesting that for me, and for many people, certain things start to happen after we practice mindfulness for a while, and when we settle into doing something, like the washing up described above. In this case, these certain things include having revealed the past thoughts we were not aware of at the time we had them. Revealed, as if in slow motion, and well within conscious awareness. In this case those thoughts are ones related to how we felt about taking some action to make our places neater, more livable.
And having had the chance to review these past thoughts as we scrub away at a pot, in a state where we can be said to be observing, and not reacting to, what's crossing our conscious minds, we may have an a-ha, or eureka moment of understanding based on those thoughts of the past.
"I didn't do the cleaning up those times when I thought about it because I was overwhelmed at the idea of it, and I didn't even know at the time that I was overwhelmed."
Now that may seem odd. How can one be overwhelmed without knowing it? Isn't it true that overwhelm is one of those big feelings you just can't ignore, which is why overwhelm often results in having its way of keeping you from whatever it is you're overwhelmed about?
Indeed, it's true overwhelm is often experienced as a big feeling. But what if we are overwhelmed, but the overwhelm occurs just beyond the reach of consciousness - so close, yet so far?
Overwhelm can operate in stealth mode - outside of conscious awareness, so you don't even know you're being overwhelmed. Yet overwhelm has shut down all those constructive thoughts of getting something done.
Your mindful awareness of your thought traffic has now let you see how sneaky overwhelm can be.
But mindful awareness presented something else to you, and that was the notion that what you were doing while these past thoughts were being revealed to you, namely scrubbing the pot, was making a difference.
Along with that there may have been other thoughts: "I don't have to do everything all at once."
"I do just one thing to make the living room look better and I sabotage overwhelm because I know there's nothing to be overwhelmed about because I do not need to do everything at once. I do not need to make a big difference now. In fact, if I really want to, all I have to do is just one thing several times during the day, and tomorrow also, and then soon, my place will look nice."
The really neat thing is that all of this awareness has now been brought into your consciousness. You have a better understanding of how devious the unconscious mind can be.
Now you can write as part of your day plan, "4 or 5 (or how many you choose) small actions to make my place look better," or to organize your desk, or to clean the garage, or whatever.
No one begins mindfulness with the expectation it will enable them to bring some of the unconscious mind into conscious awareness, allow them to overcome overwhelm, and enable them to make their homes more livable.
But that's exactly the sort of thing which happens once we begin to practice mindfulness.
We experience greater awareness of our thoughts. It is as though they slow down, and we can hold them in place so we can see what they are all about and, then, make choices based on those thoughts, and whether they have been helping or hindering us.
One of the discoveries we may make, bringing me back to my first point, is that thoughts and emotional reactions - such as overwhelm - cause problems for us even when we are not conscious of those emotional reactions occurring. We can think of overwhelm as anxiety that is triggered when our thought about doing something is understood in an unhelpful way - such as when we think cleaning the flat is too much to do, forgetting we can do a little bit at a time, many times, and get the job done without problem.
When our thoughts cause problems in this way, they are termed by cognitive behavior therapists as maladaptive thoughts - in other words, thoughts which work against us. Cognitive behavior therapy is about catching such thoughts, seeing how they hurt us, and changing our thoughts in such a way that we feel better, and get the results we want.
Often, people find it hard to catch their thoughts. That's where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness practice slows down our thoughts, increases our level of awareness, and brings thoughts and feelings we'd otherwise be unaware of into conscious awareness.
This example is one of many mindfulness practitioners could offer. What I described above came out of my own experience. I've also had many other experiences validating the value of mindful awareness, and of being aware of our thoughts, so that we can change them for the better when they're not helping us.