In order to fully experience life, you need to loosen the grip on your thoughts.

Having just become the proud parent of a healthy, beautiful baby girl made me think again of a fascinating thing that happens in the developing brain: "pruning". We have this "internal gardener" that goes to work to trim unnecessary or misleading connections, thereby balancing stimulating and calming signals.

While we have no conscious control over this internal gardener, we can develop our "green fingers" through self-awareness and mindfulness, thereby bolstering the process of bringing eternal sunshine to our spotless minds.

Description: Greening THE MIND

It is estimated that we have some 60 000 thoughts a day. Some are fruitful and take us forward; others are meaningless chatter - the brain's "white noise". Some we never even become aware of; others, however, grab us and suck us into a vortex of endless and fruitless entanglement and rumination.

Attempts are made to control and disentangle us from this web of unwanted thoughts, feelings and memories (many of which have self-critical and self-downing qualities). The respective processes of entanglement and getting rid of unwanted thoughts are called fusion and experiential avoidance by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practitioners. Both of these processes have one net effect: they obscure the sunlight and make the weeds proliferate in the lush garden that could be our world.

Why do we spend so much energy trying to rid ourselves of negative thoughts? It is because we have been conditioned to believe that the precondition for happiness is to figure everything out with this powerful problem-solving machine between our ears, and eliminate all that is distressing, negative or marked by suffering.

Here are some tips to live a life characterized by acceptance and commitment (some by Russ Harris from his book ACT Made Simple):

  • First, accept that it is a myth that you are engineered to be inherently happy, and that bad thoughts or memories interfere with this, and must be eliminated. If that were so, you would have only one emotion: joy. The fact is, you have six: sadness, joy, anger, disgust, fear and surprise. To be fully human is to accept suffering, experience all six emotions fully and not buy into the "mood stabilizer" nonsense. Life is like standing in a canoe on a raging torrent - you need to rock back and forth to remain upright.
  •  Second, in order to experience life directly and fully through your senses, you need to loosen the grip on your thoughts:
  1. Accept that what you think may or may not be true - rather focus on whether it is workable;
  2. Take a step back by looking at your thoughts from the perspective of pure consciousness - the essential, enduring, never-changing core of your being - and observing self, which has superior insight. It is only the ego that takes a knock from self-critical and self-directed notions, due to fusion with shaky self-definitions based on occupation, status, etc.; and
  3.  View your thoughts with openness, curiosity and flexibility (resisting a negative thought only intensifies it). Think "this is an interesting thought", then place it on an imaginary leaf drifting by on a slow-moving stream.
  • Third, bring your behavior increasingly under the influence of your core values - those which you yearn for at the deepest level of your being, your very raison d'être. This is more fruitful than wasting precious energy on unworkable and self-destructive actions, or disentangling yourself from unpleasant thoughts or feelings.
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