We have all heard plenty of times that happiness comes from within. We are also enlightened enough to know that our thoughts and perceptions lead to emotional manifestations. Where I find a lot of us perplexed is, despite knowing this, how do we make better choices in thoughts, how do we stop that cycle of negative thinking, that intrusive mental chatter? We talk to ourselves inside our heads, hold inner dialogues, constantly interpreting and adding meaning to our experiences.
This self-chatter can be both beneficial and detrimental to our well-being. It helps us reason, which supposedly makes us superior to animals, make plans and decisions, solve problems, organise our lives, be creative, evaluate hazards and more. It is exactly this that can also take us down a slippery slope of all that is the opposite, poor decisions, moping, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and worse. So how do we create a balance and sustain healthy cognitive patterns?
This week, I decided to simplify some of that jargon by articulating steps for practically applying these. Daily, persistent practice, if possible.
1. “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self,” said Ernest Hemingway. To improve the quality of life and find happiness, we need to stop looking outside. The best place to start with is self-observation. It is hard to do since usually, we are so busy doing that for others. But step one in the quest to choose health and peace is to notice yourself. Noticing requires our sincere and quiet focus on our body sensations such as shortness of breath, muscle tension, palpitating heart, hole in the stomach or dry mouth among other things. This is not the challenging part. It is the observation and listening to the racing thoughts in our mind and its effervescence. Notice without judging, opining or shaming the self for thoughts, feelings, stories or dialogues in your mind.
2. Having noticed the body and mind going down a rough road, the next stage is to apply the brakes or “stop” the incessant conversation to be able to change course. Hitting the pause button is easy for a few moments, however, this painstakingly created vacuum is quickly filled up by familiar and habitual thoughts, if the pause is not stretched into an effective sustained moment of silence followed by a healthier philosophy.
3. “Be aware of you breathing. Notice how this takes away from your thinking and creates space,” says Eckhart Tolle. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence is more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. Silence is often uncomfortable for us. We would rather pick up our phone and call, browse or scroll through stimuli mindlessly to fill some noise in the brain than sit in silence with ourselves. However, the practice of focusing on our breathing can help us push through some of those temptations. Regular meditation practice can help in slowing down our thought-chatter.
Focussed inhalations and exhalations keep our mind quiet, enabling us to register our inner voice, and provide an opportunity to watch our thoughts wandering, hitting against the same walls, bouncing back and resulting in challenging emotions.
4. Recognition of our patterns, though errors or irrationalities present in our thoughts is an awakening process in the direction of self-discovery and acceptance. Once we put a finger at what are those assumptions, predictions, prophecies, paranoias or rigidities that we succumb to, making ourselves experience stress due to this habitual irrational cognitive process, we may feel motivated to explore ways of dropping and displacing these.
The process of self-discovery is one in which a person, through self-questioning and examination of one’s own thoughts, words, and actions, understands the dominant belief systems, habits and personalities.
5. Changing, adapting and growing requires conscious effort and consistent practice. Just as practice over time developed bad thought habits, committing to changing them with persistence and practice can replace them and establish new and healthier philosophies.
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be,” said Abraham Lincoln. When we recognise irrationalities in self-talk, making effort in changing those with mindful and meaningful thoughts, it is a powerful and liberating exercise.
Making careful choices in what we allow into our minds, being conscious of our words, our beliefs and our scripts with ourselves can elicit or deplete happiness. This is where we make choices in what we allow to enter and make a home in our heads, where we let go, adapt, resolve, preserve and grow into individuals we want to love and respect.
(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)
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