“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” ― Lao Tzu
We spend so much of our lives living inside our own heads, it’s a wonder we ever have the time to see what is going around us. We have a constant narrative of thought going on. It is like the background noise of a radio or TV; often not noticed, but always there.
Do you realise that we humans, it seems, have anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. But according to some research, as many as 98 percent of them are exactly the same as we had the day before. Talk about creatures of habit! Even more significantly, over 80 percent of our thoughts are negative. That means that every day we are self-criticizing ourselves with over 56,000 thoughts. With that level of negative bias, it’s no wonder so many people suffer from anxiety and even depression.
Why is so much of our self-talk, negative?
If you think back to our pre-history as hunter-gatherers, we spent most of our time hunting or being hunted. Our flight or fight responses were tuned into everything going on around us.
“Is that a tiger I see before me, or just a leafy shadow in the bushes ahead?”
The default thought patterns were centred on how to keep us alive. In effect, making us be cautious about every situation we came across. We used our memories to record and reflect on previous encounters and to use those to help us keep out of danger.
“Yes, it is a tiger and I believe it was a tiger I saw yesterday. Therefore, keep out of the way”
This would be the instinctive reaction, eve if 9 times out of 10, it was just a shadow and not a tiger.
Leap forward and that base level instinct and mode of thought has not changed one jot. However, it is not the tiger in the shadows that makes us worry; rather it is life going on around us.
What appears to happen, is that we have continued to develop a narrative mode of thought. This is where we think about the future, based on circumstances; events; and key obstacles of the past. We constantly think about what may happen in the future, often thinking about future obstacles and how to overcome them based on prior experiences. This is not necessarily negative. In fact, it can be very helpful as we navigate this complex world around us. However, when we do overcome them, or go around them, or avoid them, we still have other obstacles that pop up. It is akin to a life long hurdle race.
If we are in a negative mode of thought, we think about how difficult those obstacles are and how impossible it is to overcome them. We go round and round, and as mentioned at the start, we churn over our thoughts; day by day; returning to previous negative thoughts. By doing this, we artificially amplify them; making them bigger and more impossible to solve.
So how do you stop the negative thought spiral?
Stop. Just stop. Stop and pay attention to the now. Now, I know you are going to say, how on earth do you do that?
A simple exercise you can try is as – just for a moment, listen to your breath. Or notice what you are looking at. Or the smells in the air.
For example; If you have a shower; when you are standing under the water, close your eyes and feel the water on your skin. Open your eyes and when you open the bottle of shower wash, smell the aroma and scent. Mine is eucalyptus and grapefruit of all things. If you are cleaning your teeth, concentrate on the brushing motion against your teeth and gums.
And when those negative thoughts start to come around again as they will; the first step is to recognise the thoughts as negative. The second is to acknowledge that, like all thoughts, these will come and go. Moment by moment.
I was sitting on the bed this morning and a whole suite of negative thoughts starting going around in my head. It made me feel uncomfortable. I could feel my heart rate begin to increase. However, what made the difference was I realised that these were negative thoughts. Just thoughts. They did not reflect the reality of the moment, sitting on the bed. Thoughts of the past, that you can not change. Thoughts of the future, yet to come.
In effect, I was present in the now.
The TEDx youTube video that inspired this blog post, by Daron Larson, can be found here. It is well worth the 12 minutes to watch.
I leave you with the following quote.
“We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past. But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.” – Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience