In doing the research for a new book I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of old and new favorites on the topic of mindfulness. One of those is the recently released second edition of a classic in the field, Full Catastrophe Living (Bantam, 2013) by Jon Kabat-Zinn. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn created the first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for patients with all sorts of chronic conditions at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Since then hundreds of medical schools and hospitals around the world have implemented MBSR programs that have made life better for millions of people. Kabat-Zinn is a hero of mine, and I met him at the Wisdom 2.0 conference earlier this year.
A few days ago, I read a passage in the Kabat-Zinn book that played out for me in real life this past weekend. I’ll tell that story in a moment, but first, my guess is you’ll relate to what he writes about here:
“Your thoughts are just thoughts and . . . not ‘you’ or ‘reality’. For instance, if you have the thought that you have to get a certain number of things done today and you don’t recognize it as a thought but act as if it’s ‘the truth,’ then you have created a reality in that moment in which you really believe that those things must all be done today.”
As you think about all the things that you “have” to do between now and the end of the year, how does that make you feel? A little or a lot stressed? How does that stress show up in the way you feel in your body? How does it show up in your actions? Do you notice how your thoughts can literally lead to feelings that have an impact on your actions? What do you do about it?
Last weekend, I had an interesting experience that illustrates how thoughts control the way we feel. To celebrate my wife’s 50th birthday, we went away for the evening to a nice hotel. Unfortunately, there was a big party right outside our window and the room we were in was roasting, so we didn’t get a lot of sleep. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I had a dream that I turned onto the wrong lane of a divided thoroughfare. In the dream, I eased the car through a break in the median to get on the right side of the road and as I did, I noticed a police car in my rear view mirror. I woke up at that “oh, crap” moment in the dream. What I noticed then was fascinating. I could literally feel the adrenaline and other hormones activated by my brain’s fight or flight response surging through my body. I could feel my heart rate increasing and everything tensing up inside. It was a vivid case of a thought controlling a feeling.
That sequence of thoughts I had in the dream was clearly not reality, but it played out in my body as if it was. In that case, I took a few deep, slow breaths, calmed down and tried to go back to sleep.
It’s just as important to notice our thoughts and the feelings they create when we’re awake. Here’s a suggestion as you deal with everything on your plate between now and the end of the year: Pay attention to how your thoughts make you feel. Notice whether one thought leads to another and then another that eventually creates a parallel universe that may or may not represent reality. What’s the impact of that on how you feel and the actions that result from that feeling? Happy with that? Great, keep going. Not so happy with that? Then consider taking some deep breaths, slow down for a few minutes and take a look at the difference between your thoughts and reality.