We all experience having thoughts and the feelings or ‘emotions’ that these thoughts produce in our bodies. Sometimes they are pleasant thoughts with corresponding pleasant emotions but all-to-often they are troubling thoughts with accompanying uncomfortable feelings. Emotions are our body’s shortcut to the physical state required to avoid danger or take advantage of an important opportunity. The question is ‘why do our brains produce so many troubling, stressful thoughts and emotions and so few pleasant and comforting ones?’
The answer is to be found in our prehistoric past when danger lurked in every bush and cave, when the rustle in the darkness really was likely to be a predator that could eat us, or a neighbouring tribe out to steal our food or kidnap our family and assault us in the process. It paid to develop a cautionary mindset, one that predicted the worst so they could take evasive action and those without that tendency were more likely to come a cropper. So our ancestors were the survivors, the ones that had the cautionary thoughts or noticed an opportunity with the corresponding emotion and took the quickest action. They were our parents, parents, the ones who lived to have children, eventually passing on that trait to us.
This becomes a problem in the modern world because we have eliminated many of the immediate dangers. For many of us the threat of starvation is solved by a trip to the local market rather than having to embark on a hazardous hunt for food or shelter in order to survive the next few days. We are able to lock our doors to intruders or call the police or an ambulance when we feel vulnerable. We have competent and loyal armed forces to keep any hostile tribes at bay and a generally fair legal system to resolve disputes without violence. Admittedly there are still people in such circumstances but they tend to be the minority in western countries or they are fleeing poverty, famine or warfare.
The problem arises when we assume that we are ‘modern people’ and that we are deliberately thinking all of our thoughts or that our emotional responses are rational. In other words, it feels like we are the active thinker of all the thoughts we have. Arguably all our thoughts are the products of our brain but we are the chooser of the thoughts we have and the emotions we experience or we decide which thoughts and emotions we pay attention to and therefore which ones we encourage.
A way to experience this is to try and meditate. Meditation usually involves deliberately focusing our attention on something for a period of time, often a sensation like breathing. When we try to meditate we become aware that we cannot stop the endless stream of thinking. Just try to pay attention to your breath for five minutes, not thinking about it, just feeling the sensation and you will notice that your attention is being continually interrupted by a constant barrage of unwanted thoughts and seemingly uncontrollable emotions. This is because our brains are thought factories, pouring thoughts off a production line into our consciousness and our bodies react with an appropriate emotional response to fit each thought. This is normal and a useful adaptation because the more thoughts our brains produce the more likely it is that we will have a useful one and as mentioned above cautionary thoughts and ones about obtaining useful resources served our ancestors well in the past.
The issue is what do we have control over or a choice about. We don’t have control over the thoughts that enter our mind or the immediate emotion that they produce. As mentioned before the general flavour of many of our thoughts is a hangover from our prehistoric past. We do however have a choice about which ones we encourage and give our full attention. This is obvious in everyday life when for example someone is annoying us. We commonly have aggressive or violent thoughts and emotions towards them but we don’t normally enact these and if we do we regret our actions. We convince ourselves that this is not a useful thought or emotion to act on and we pick an alternative course like walking away or distracting ourselves. When we don’t examine this type of thought/emotion as a bad idea, that is when it goes wrong. So our ability to recognise our thoughts and emotions as ideas floating across our mind, rather than deliberate and uncontrollable is very useful.
Wouldn’t it be good if we became more familiar with our thoughts and emotions as just the ‘ideas’ our brains generate rather than something we are deliberately deciding to think and feel. That way we could decide which ones are useful and which ones are redundant, which ones we should encourage with more of our attention and which ones we should allow to float on by and fade away.
When we practise mindfulness meditation this is exactly what we are doing. We are noticing the thoughts and emotions that interrupt our attention on our breath. When we do this regularly we become better at recognising them as, not our thoughts and emotions but just ideas that our brain generates to be helpful. We are training our brains about which thoughts and emotions we find helpful rather than it working on the prehistoric default of anxious, aggressive and hostile ones. We can learn to choose kind, calming and grateful thoughts over the default position and like training a puppy our brain wants to please and gives us more of what we reward it with. Gradually peaceful, calm and loving thoughts become its default behaviour.
So give mindfulness meditation a go and overtime, notice the beneficial changes in the thoughts and emotions your brain provides.