The Mind's Traffic* l September/October 2015
It’s our fast reactions that get us into trouble: “I can’t believe you did such a stupid thing!” or “What the hell were you thinking?” or “You’re a real ____!” When words erupt quickly, it’s the emotional brain reacting, not the logical brain responding. How can we learn to slow ourselves down — and keep emotions in check — so that the logical brain has a chance to guide us toward our best selves?
One way is by developing the ability to non-judgmentally observe our thoughts and emotions as they stir. Consider this metaphor: imagine yourself sitting on a bench at the side of a busy highway. The highway is your active mind with its endless traffic — its constant flow of thoughts and feelings (emotions). Sitting atop each passing car is a sign representing your every thought and feeling. One car carries a sign indicating “Angry,” another carries “Sad,” another “Contented.” Other cars’ signs indicate “What to purchase at the grocery” and “Remember to phone the in-laws” and “Assembling the holiday gift list.” The mind’s traffic never stops — not for you, not for any of us.
Most of us spend our days as a passenger bouncing from one car to the next amid the mind’s constant traffic.
How much better we’d feel — calmer, more content — if, even occasionally, we'd step out of the traffic and move to the bench at the side of the road where we just observe the traffic. “There’s my anger … there’s my fear … there’s worrying about bills … there’s fretting over that work deadline.” It’s a very different experience to sit on the side of the highway and just be aware of the traffic rather than being stuck in it.
Sitting on the bench with awareness — it’s called mindfulness,i, the ability to observe the steady flow of thoughts and feelings passing through the mind. As we develop the mindfulness skill, we learn to observe and accept our emotions without expressing them and without judging them good or bad, right or wrong. As we learn to slow down and refrain from being in the grip of our emotions, we create the necessary space for the logical brain to step in.
After a lifetime caught up in the mind’s constant traffic, it’s hard to move to the side of the road. It takes regular mindfulness practice. Books and apps and workshops can show you the way. The smartphone app Headspace is a good place to start.
* This month’s Tip addresses the question posed at the end of the last Tip: How do we slow ourselves down, so as to not react too quickly to what we hear or see?
i Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness for Beginners. (Sounds True, Inc: Boulder, CO). 2012.