Sometimes life seems like a really big project. We are rushing around trying to get everything done but we never get there. There is this continuous sense of needing to do more, accomplish more, create more, work more, strive more so that we can “get everything done.” Because that is an impossible task, there is a sense that our doing is never enough. It is not difficult to understand then why so many people have the thought “I should be doing something all of the time.”
This is what I hear people tell me when they first come to the mindfulness classes I teach. “I have difficulty making time to practice mindfulness because I think I should be doing something” or “I should be doing something more productive.” My response is that mindfulness practice is actually doing something—something quite important. Although the doing is about “being,” it is a doing that can change and heal your life.
Anyone who has engaged in mindfulness practice can tell you that there is an effort (a “doing,” if you will) that is required in order to keep your attention in the present moment and to remember to bring a nonjudgmental, kind interest to whatever is happening. The practice can help you recognize the pattern of thinking that says “I should be doing something” as just a pattern of thinking that you have been conditioned to believe because of the culture we live in. Psychologists identify most of our automatic thoughts like this as “cognitive distortions.” Should statements like “I should be doing something all of the time” is a cognitive distortion.
Here are some ways of dealing with thoughts and patterns of thinking so that you are not at their mercy.
- Label what kind of thoughts are going through your mind (e.g. should statements, worry thoughts, all-or-nothing thinking, to-do lists, judging thoughts, etc.). Become familiar with your top three cognitive distortions so you can recognize them sooner and realize they aren’t true.
- Recognize thoughts as mental events, not as facts. Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that tell you they are. This is a big realization for most people who are beginning to learn mindfulness practice. It can be a big relief.
- Practice seeing the thoughts like clouds passing through the sky. They come and go all on their own.
- Write your thoughts down so that you get them out of your head and on to the page.
- Ask yourself “What’s another way of looking at this?” There is always a new way of looking at things that give you different perspectives on your situation. Having new perspectives is helpful for making more informed choices.
- Because thoughts can create a great deal of suffering for us, don’t forget to bring great care and compassion to yourself. Acknowledge the pain that you are feeling and then do something that will nourish you. Learning how you can nourish yourself is an important skill to have in your toolbox. Do you need to talk to someone, go for a walk in nature, take a soothing bath with candles and music, read a book, listen to an inspiring talk on TED? Start building your capacity to self-nurture.
In mindfulness practice, we can come to realize that our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not the ultimate truth or necessarily true at all. When we see them with mindfulness and let them go, our inner wisdom has a chance to arise and we can see things with greater clarity and acceptance. Use the practice of mindfulness to gain control over your mind and direct it in ways that are helpful and healing.