3 Ways to Step Beyond Overthinking
By Cara Bradley
Have you ever tried to stop your mind from thinking? It’s not easy, right? In our society of more and better, our minds are constantly cluttered with mental noise. You don’t realize how much overthinking controls your day until you collapse in bed at night.
The truth is that thinking is what our minds are meant to do. It’s impossible to stop. In fact, Tibetan Buddhists consider thought to be our sixth sense. Just as our senses function automatically without having to turn them on or off, so does our mind. Our thoughts occur as naturally as the smell of coffee, the sight of birds flying, or the sensation of chills on our skin. Thoughts naturally arise and fade away in the same way the taste of a fresh piece of fruit arises and fades away.
The notion that our minds produce thoughts automatically was a breakthrough insight for me. For years, I battled to still my mind, to stop thinking. Once I embraced the perspective that my thoughts are another sense, my relationship with thinking changed. I identified less with my thoughts and expended less mental energy following my stories, fears, and worries. I began to disentangle the grasping and identification I had with my thoughts. I allowed the chatter in my mind to come and go without needing to follow every conversation. This shift was pure liberation.
Ultimately, thinking isn’t a bad thing. The trouble is that we’re often preoccupied and obsessed with it. We identify with our thoughts so strongly that we tend to believe that they perfectly reflect our reality. Too much planning, judging, analyzing, remembering, doubting, and worrying pull us away from the moment in which we are living. We become distracted, lost somewhere in the past or future, disconnected from our bodies and imprisoned by our thoughts. These thought loops are exhausting, not to mention that overthinking creates tension and robs us of peace.
If it’s impossible to stop thinking, then how do we step beyond our habitually busy minds? Here’s three ways to get started.
- Notice This Moment
Mindfulness is your capacity to show up in this moment from the level of mind, body, and heart. It is your ability to notice your experience — no matter if what’s happening is good or not. Driving is a great time to practice noticing physical sensations and the environment around you. Notice everything around you — the sky, the trees, the noise, and how your body feels as you sit behind the wheel. In so doing, you’ll become more adept at noticing how your thoughts come and go just as other sensations do. Instead of getting caught up in thinking, you’ll be more likely to allow thoughts to come and go.
- Ask Yourself: Am I Now Here or No Where?
In this exact moment you are likely somewhere between being fully aware and completely unaware. You might be focused on these words or sort of reading them while thinking about tomorrow. In this way, you live somewhere between “Now Here” and “No Where.” Frequently asking yourself the question Am I Now Here or No Where? can interrupt a cycle of overthinking. Ask yourself this question and you will become present immediately. It’s as easy as that.
You can also try this more formal practice:
- Close your eyes.
- Place your hand just beneath your navel so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Take a breath in, and in your mind say, “Now.” Breathe out slowly, saying, “Here.” Repeat.
- Continue to breathe in and out in this way, saying in your mind, “Now. Here.”
- When you notice you’ve become distracted by thoughts or sensations (and you will become distracted), say in your mind, “No Where.”
- Bring your attention back to your next breath.
- Bells, Bells, Be Here Now
Meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests using everyday occurrences as practice reminders. He teaches that the sound of a bell can remind you to return to the present moment. Bells include the sounds from phones, appliances, computers, or alarms. The next time you hear a bell ring, say in your mind, “Be Here Now.”
These three simple practices will help you get better at noticing when you’re pulled away by thoughts. By tuning in and observing, you will wake up to what your mind is doing in short bursts. Practice this new awareness consistently and your habitual thoughts will no longer rule your world. Instead, they will simply rise and fade away.
When you step beyond overthinking by not getting carried away by your continuous stream of thinking, you will begin to feel consistently more clear and alert. Freed from identifying with every thought that arises, you experience a sense of vitality and joy. Overtime, you form a new relationship with thinking, your sixth sense. No longer dominant, thoughts are placed alongside your other senses allowing you to recognize the delightful dance of sensations always coming and going. You shift from getting stuck in your busy mind to stepping beyond overthinking and experiencing all of your senses, smelling a sweet scent or sensing something on your skin, more vividly. This is liberation.
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Cara Bradley is the author of On the Verge. She is a passionate teacher of yoga, meditation, and fitness who has been in the trenches of personal transformation as a “mental strength coach” for over three decades at her Verge Yoga Center, retreats, corporate training sessions, and with teams such as Villanova University football and Penn State men’s basketball. She lives in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Visit her online at www.carabradley.net.
Based on the book On the Verge. Copyright © 2016 by Cara Bradley. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com