Before moving on to this week’s subject matter, take a moment to look back at last week’s themes and exercises.
How did you practise refocusing, maintaining and shifting your attention? What could you notice regarding how your mind works based on the exercise: what kinds of things do you tend to focus on? What kinds of things do you not notice without conscious concentration?
Did you practise conscious eating? If you did, think about how the experience of conscious eating differs from your usual way of eating.
If you did not do the exercise, think about what prevented it. Did you remember to practise? If not, how could you ensure that you will remember going forward? Or did the exercise perhaps arouse some thoughts or emotions in you that made you refrain from doing it? How could you approach these “internal obstacles” in the future?
Finally, think about how practising refocusing, maintaining and shifting your attention, along with conscious eating, could be related to your mood.
Next, you can move on to this week’s themes. But before that, do the three-minute meditation exercise from last week.
How does your mind react to problems?
Losses, disappointments and unpleasant emotions are an inevitable part of human life. How we approach such experiences and emotions can have a significant impact on our wellbeing. The video below provides more information on how our thinking affects our mood.
Thinking is a part of the problem
It is very human and understandable to wish to never have to feel depressed, or to make it through life without any significant setbacks or losses. It is also very understandable to react to such experiences emotionally. In actuality, it is necessary for us to allow ourselves to feel difficult emotions.
Challenges arise if our mind begins to valuate, judge and criticise these emotions. Our thoughts can be something along the lines of “I’ve failed because I feel disappointed” or “it’s embarrassing that I’m crying.” When that happens, our mind tries to get rid of these emotions and emotional reactions, i.e. feelings of failure and disappointment, feelings of embarrassment and shame or crying, like in the previous examples.
Contemplate: what kinds of emotions are difficult for you to allow yourself to feel? Do you recognise thoughts that criticise your own experiences? Or do some memories, thoughts, emotions or mental images cause you to feel hopelessness or guilt? Write down your thoughts. Try to focus curiously and gently on what kinds of emotions and physical sensations this contemplation arouses in you.
Depression and the stress and fatigue it brings suck joy and vitality out of life. Mindfulness can help you get them back.
Imagine the two following situations:
- It is the first warm summer day of the year. You are walking along the seashore with bare feet. You feel the sand and occasional rocks under your feet. You can smell the salty sea air and hear the even sound of waves washing ashore. You hear people talking and seagulls screeching. You are looking at the glimmering sea, a ship travelling across the sea and clouds in the sky.
- You are lying in bed and snap out of browsing on your phone. You realise that you have spent an hour on your phone but can barely remember what you have read and watched. Your finger has been swiping and tapping the screen as if by itself while your mind has also been occupied by many other thoughts.
These two situations illustrate how differently we can experience different situations. In the first situation, you are living in the moment, noticing and sensing things as they happen and enjoying simple things. In the latter situation, you are not in touch with the place and time in which you are. You have not really even chosen your actions, but are instead operating as if on autopilot.
Contemplate: in what kinds of situations do you find yourself operating on autopilot? By contrast, in what kinds of situations are you consciously present in the moment?
Living on autopilot as described above is quite common and, on the other hand, useful in some situations. But in moments in which we do not need to focus, our mind spends the ‘free time’ on what it has developed for: thinking, planning, problem solving, dreaming, worrying. This busywork of the mind can easily slip into compulsive worrying, eventually leading to depression or painful worry-focused thinking that causes intense anxiety. In other words, living on autopilot increases our risk of getting stuck on our unpleasant experiences and losing connection with pleasant things in life.
Contemplate: do you sometimes notice that worries, unpleasant memories or other thoughts that have a negative effect on your mood are racing in your mind without you having decided to think about them? What are these thoughts usually like?
Exercise: thought time window. For this exercise, you will need a timer. Read the instructions first and then set the timer to two minutes. You will also need a pen or pencil and a small piece of paper. At the top of the paper, write down three categories: ‘the past’, ‘now’ and ‘the future.’
In this exercise, your task is to observe what kinds of thoughts occur in your mind. When you notice you are having a thought related to the past, draw a line under ‘the past.’ When you notice you are having a thought related to the future , draw a line under ‘the future.’ When you notice you are having a thought related to the present moment, draw a line under ‘now.’ Do this for two minutes. Start the exercise now and read the next instructions after completing the exercise.
When two minutes have passed and you have drawn lines as thoughts have occurred in your mind, examine which category has the most lines in it. Make observations on what times your thoughts focused on. Is this typical of you? Think also about what kinds of thoughts brought you to the present moment.
Now, let us briefly examine how living on autopilot may steer a person towards a new depressive episode. The next video provides more information about this.
Depression tends to relapse
Here is one hypothetical example of how an ordinary emotion can cause a depression-sensitive person to become depressed again:
- The person feels sad.
- Their low mood brings back memories of a previous depressed state.
- Thinking about depression causes the person to think “my life would have been better without depression.”
- This thought causes the person to feel disappointment, bitterness and hopelessness, deepening their sadness.
- The person’s mind becomes filled with memories from their life related to these emotions, e.g. failures, disappointments.
- By this point, the person’s mood has become very low. Their attention focuses on things that maintain this low mood, ignoring things that could help them lift their spirits.
The example above shows how the person’s mind takes them down a path that leads to depression, “without permission” or without a conscious choice. The more a person goes down this path, the more familiar and automatic it becomes. It may even start to appear that this path is inevitable and that there are no alternatives.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to living on autopilot: conscious presence. By practising mindfulness, we start to go down a different path. This journey is slow, and we may have to go down the path many times before it becomes familiar and easier to take. Therefore, you should not expect just one or a few practice sessions to have a significant effect on your state, but in the long run, you can learn to stop living on autopilot and change your direction towards meaningful things that have a positive impact on your wellbeing.
You can practise mindfulness anytime, anywhere. It is not necessarily a challenge in and of itself; instead, the challenge lies in remembering to be present or practise presence.
You should practise mindfulness in everyday life, because that is where we need it the most. At its simplest, this means noticing what you are doing at any given moment.
Exercise: mindfulness in everyday life. Choose one thing that you will do every day and practise doing it consciously for a week. For example, it can be one of the following:
– Waking up
– Taking a shower
– Drying off after showering
– Getting dressed
– Making coffee or tee
– Drinking water
– Doing the dishes
– Filling or emptying the dishwasher
– Taking out the trash
– Opening the door
– Sitting down at the table
– Tying shoelaces
Write down your observations on the exercise. What kinds of observations did you make? What sensations did you notice?
Exercises for the week
This week, practice examining what your mind is doing when you are not paying attention to it. Take an occasional break to do the thought time window exercise. You can draw the lines of every practise session onto the same paper. This way, you will start to notice where your mind is spending time over the week.
Be sure to practice mindfulness in everyday life as well. Write down your observations for a week when you are doing your chosen activity consciously. What kinds of thoughts, emotions and sensations can you notice during the exercise?