Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, or just the normal stresses of every day life, it’s likely that you get caught up in your thoughts and emotions at times. We all do it, it’s only human. Most of the time our fusion with our thoughts and feelings is incredibly subtle and goes unnoticed. Other times we’ve daydreamed our way right past our exit on the highway or have done something we’ve regretted after being caught up in strong emotions. It’s natural to feel that your thoughts and emotions are you. After all, they are coming from your brain so they must be you, right?
Scientists have estimated that the human brain produces up to 50,000 thoughts a day. These thoughts are the end result of an elaborate burst of electrical and chemical activity that somehow becomes our consciousness. Thoughts give rise to feelings, and feelings spur thoughts. It’s a never ending dance that can sweep us off our feet before we even realize it is happening. But even so, you may notice at times that you are thinking. You may catch yourself daydreaming, giving yourself a pep talk, or thinking through a difficult situation. You can observe your thoughts, so you must not be your thoughts. There must be something else there.
I like to call this something else your “mind’s eye”. Others refer to it as “metacognition”, your “wise mind”, or “observing mind”. Whatever you call it, the mind’s eye is the part of you that can step back and watch your thoughts, feelings, and experiences unfold. The mind’s eye, when trained, can remove itself from the action and watch as an impartial observer. It holds space for the thoughts and feelings to play out, much like a screen holds space for a movie to be projected or a chess board allows for a game of chess to unfold.
Developing our mind’s eye is important because it allows us to create space between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings. With this space, we are able to decide whether we want to buy into our thoughts and feelings or whether we want to choose an alternative response.
This space affords us so much more freedom. We can avoid automatically buying into our negative thoughts about ourselves. We can choose to get out of bed when our alarm goes off instead of going back to sleep because we don’t feel like getting up. We can choose to stay silent and walk away when everything in us is screaming at us to lash out at someone who has hurt us. We can choose to prioritize our health by moving our bodies when we’d rather not exercise that day.
So how do we build our mind’s eye? Awareness is the first step. We have to practice stepping back and noticing our thoughts and feelings as they arise. Developing a formal or informal mindfulness can help with this. In its most simplistic form, mindfulness involves anchoring yourself to the present (by focusing on something like your breath) and simply noticing every time your mind drifts away. When you notice that your mind has wandered you label the thoughts as thoughts and gently guide your mind back to the present moment. The more you are able to notice your mind wandering and bring it back, the stronger your mindfulness muscle becomes.
Another effective way to build your mind’s eye is to practice allowing thoughts to be there without acting on them, or allowing thoughts to be there while you do the opposite of what they demand. A simple illustration of this is to repeat to yourself over and over (out loud or in your head) “I can’t lift my arm” while you lift your arm over your head. You can practice this exact exercise, or can apply the concept to your daily life. For example, the next time you feel like stopping your workout, do one extra pushup. The next time you feel like sitting down to watch TV, tidy up for two minutes before you take your seat. Delaying your response to your thoughts and desires teaches your mind’s eye that it doesn’t have to automatically respond to every thought and feeling that flits across a synapse.
What do you think about the idea of a “mind’s eye”? Are there ways that you practice developing your mind’s eye?