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How to Take a Break from Your Mind

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Movies frequently scared me when I was a kid. Certain moments in Gremlins, The Secret of Nimh, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory made my insides clench with fear. It was the worst of all feelings.

Most other kids seemed completely unperturbed by these movies, which created the additional pressure, in certain birthday party or sleepover situations, of having to pretend I was totally not scared and in fact was quite enjoying myself.

While I wasn’t brave, I was clever. At some point I discovered a wonderfully effective trick for becoming invulnerable to movie scariness without looking away or covering my eyes.

I would continue to look at the screen, but slightly cross my eyes, putting the screen out of focus.

This subtle move instantly broke any movie’s spell. Threatening gremlins and sword-wielding rats became soupy blurs, accompanied by disembodied sound effects. In an instant, I could dissolve the scary tale and turn it into moving shapes and sounds, freeing myself from the story’s emotional grip.

In reality, the movies were only shapes and sounds, but now I had a way of choosing whether my emotions were tied to the events depicted by them. Whenever I wanted to, I could exit the swirling sea of emotional tumult — or jump back in.

I had no idea I was doing something I’d later learn in meditation halls: deconstructing a narrative experience into a sensory one, and moving my attention between these two levels on purpose.

As adults, we spend a lot of time captivated by the stories depicted in our minds. It’s impossible to know for sure, but some studies suggest we spend more than half our lives lost in thought – that is, completely gripped by free-associating mental depictions of life, rather than life itself.

Often the subject matter is innocuous – idly rehashing this morning’s breakfast conversation, rewriting an email you sent off too quickly, or mentally recounting the merits of bike-commuting to a friend who resists the idea.

Other times, the subject matter is threatening and painful, involving Future You experiencing certain universal human fears: illness, financial strife, disgrace and disrepute.

As with a movie, when you’re absorbed in a mental narrative, the emotions are real. Worry isn’t just the fear of future pain, it is a kind of pain. As Mark Twain famously observed: “I have known many sorrows, most of which never happened.”

This human capacity to suffer from imagined experiences does have a purpose — if we didn’t suffer at all until we became destitute, diseased, or ostracized, we’d probably do a worse job at avoiding those scenarios. A small amount of imagination-induced pain goes a long way, however. We don’t need to suffer as much as we do.

Trying not to think isn’t the answer. Just as I couldn’t shut off Labyrinth in front of my peers whenever the Goblin King appeared, you can’t shut off the mind whenever it gets caught up in worry or rumination. But you can break the spell in the same way I did — by shifting your attention from the narrative level to the sensory level.

The key is to remember that worry isn’t a window into the future. It’s a present-moment sensory experience in which the future is depicted. Your thoughts contain no future and no danger, just as a television screen contains no gremlins.

Sometimes we want to be absorbed in the narrative level, of course, and to do that we must forget sensory experience. When you read a novel, you want to feel like the characters are real. You don’t want to be aware that you’re sitting in an Ikea chair, staring at paper.

When it comes to worried thoughts, however, it would be nice not to be helplessly tossed around by the story being depicted.

The moment you notice you’re ruminating, you can drop to the sensory level with one simple move: move your attention to something your body is experiencing.

Your attention is like a flashlight, and you can simply shine it on something physical. Feel your feet on the floor, the nervous tingles in your stomach, or the contact between your sweater and your shoulders.

Attending to anything in the body takes you to straight to the sensory level, breaking the fixation with the narrative level. You can’t pay attention to both at the same time.

My friend Daron Larson, a mindfulness teacher, recommends doing this regularly, taking little breaks from the narrative experience of worry by periodically moving your attention downward to discover what the body is experiencing.

The point isn’t free yourself from worry by ignoring it for a few seconds, but rather to see that your attention has these two modes – narrative and sensory – rather than one, and you can move between them at will.

This mental mobility is one of the great gifts of mindfulness. With regular practice you can learn to live rooted in sensory experience, attending to the narrative level whenever it’s needed for making big picture decisions, getting swept away by it much less often.

If your attention seldom leaves the mental movie screen, you live at the mercy of whatever stories appear there. If those stories tend to depict danger, suffering, and things going wrong, then that’s what life will tend to feel like, no matter what’s really happening.

In any moment, you can take a momentary break from your mind by attending to your body. Learn to move back and forth between the story and the senses. The more familiar this movement feels, the freer you are.

***

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Noel Anthony April 13, 2020 at 2:14 am

When I was running, I remember listening to a training podcast which said to focus on the pain. Not block it out. It was such an eye opener for me and probably helped me prevent injuries by knowing when I was in true pain or when I was just lazy. I feel your article touches on a similar element by breaking things down into the sensory.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 9:44 am

I learned this same lesson in a very different context. I was working a grueling orchard job with some friends and we all hated it and dreaded our shifts. At some point I learned that it was the talking and fearing the physical discomfort that was the truly bad part. So during the job I focused on my aching shoulders rather than trying not to feel them, and I found I felt unstoppable. The pain isn’t that bad, it’s the desperation to avoid it that creates the suffering.

This running season I want to make a formal mindfulness practice out of it.

Anne April 13, 2020 at 6:09 am

Thankyou David. I often feel trapped in my noisy, relentless mind: this is a valuable reminder of the exit strategy. I can tend to try to fight thoughts with more thoughts, when a change of focus to the physical, the real and immediate would be a much better way out.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 9:50 am

Exactly… fighting thoughts with thoughts just makes more thoughts. We tend to try to resolve what’s in our mind by thinking of a solution, but if we had a solution we wouldn’t be ruminating. So it just goes on. Moving to the sensory experience doesn’t end the thinking, it just reveals that you don’t need to be enslaved by the rumination. It’s just a show.

Catrina April 13, 2020 at 6:21 am

A while back I was visiting some relatives and a fight broke out. I was an adult, but I was scared. I zoned out and focused on the pattern of the tablecloth in front of me.
Going forward, I could improve this by focusing on what the body is feeling and practising the switch between sensory and narrative levels. Thank you!

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 9:55 am

The body is just the easiest of many sensory possibilities. Any sense will do. In fact, you can even learn to be aware of thoughts _as sensations themselves_ without paying attention to the content. That takes some practice though.

Dan Damerville April 13, 2020 at 7:05 am

Thank you, David. This is such a lucid explanation of a key point (the KEY point?) of mindful awareness practice.

Mary April 13, 2020 at 8:41 am

Needed this. I had a restless night stuck in my own mind, a sort of panic probably brought on in part by this quarantine. This article in my inbox came with perfect timing.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 9:55 am

Thanks Dan

Elisa Winter April 13, 2020 at 7:43 am

For the longest time my thoughts told me that nothing could be this simple. If so much could be/has been said and written about mindfulness, if you have to sit for 10-day silent meditations retreats, it’s got to be difficult and complex, right? And maybe it is. I’m a beginner (again), what do I know? But just recently I’ve seen how simple and available sensory experience can be, and just resting in it for a bit a couple of times a day, whenever I want to, for whatever reason. (Richard Lang, thank you!)

For me it’s always been road kill and/or traffic accidents. I must focus elsewhere on the road or in the car. My personal anti-rubbernecking reflex.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 10:00 am

Haha… of course thoughts would say that!

Richard Lang (and Douglas Harding) are treasures to this world. For anyone interested in checking their work out: headless.org

Patrick Byrne April 13, 2020 at 7:53 am

Even if you just allow yourself to become simply aware of your thoughts without following them, they will lose energy on their own. There is a time and place for distracting oneself from one’s thoughts and emotions, but often that only serves to postpone a reckoning. I often find that if I allow my thoughts and emotions to run wild for a bit, effectively “letting out the line,” they tire on their own accord and will soon lose the intensity that made me seek a distraction to begin with.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 10:05 am

Yes, agreed. Awareness of thought is a more direct option, but it takes a fair bit of training to be able to be aware of them without getting sucked into their narrative content. Learning that you can move your attention outside the narrative of thought is a game-changing first step.

Ginzo April 13, 2020 at 8:04 am

A great depiction of how we get enslaved to the ;’inner movie’. And yes, switching the focus to sensory reminds us, ‘we are not just the whirlwind of dramas and thoughts’. But it can be taken a step further. When having these ruminating thoughts; one can ask,’ where do I feel this in the body?’. Tight chest, stomach cramping, headache….? Then focus on that area, try to ‘soften it’. It sounds weird but ‘find a way to comfort it, be kind to it’. Remarkably, If you lessen the symptom, you decrease the cause.
‘Self-Compassion’.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 10:07 am

For sure. Mindfulness can go much further than this. There is a traceable connection between an emotional thought and body sensations responding to that thought. You can also learn to be aware of unpleasant body sensations without pushing them away. Mindfulness practice gives you such a rich toolbox for managing the human experience.

Graham Campbell April 13, 2020 at 8:22 am

Thanks David,
Great you brought out how your attention is (can be) divided in two areas.
The narrative and the sensory.
What helped me re-gain control from ‘the narrative’ was doing just that in a run through the senses mode from -body feel and awareness to taste /smell/ listening and looking -running through our main senses. This helped me take a pause from being so head centred
Cheers,
Graham

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 10:20 am

I do this too, throughout the day. I check in with sound experience, and notice what it’s like to hear. Then I check in with the body, to notice any obvious physical sensations. Then I check in with the mind, not to ruminate but just to become aware of the level of activity and the tone of my thoughts. It’s like a little tour.

Victoria Yazlle April 13, 2020 at 8:25 am

Thanks a lot, David. You find the simplest words to show these very human phenomena.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 10:21 am

Thanks Victoria

Steven April 13, 2020 at 8:57 am

Thank you for eloquently explaining this, David. This, and many other observations you’ve shared, remind me of vipassana meditation. Have you taken a course?

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 10:22 am

I have been a few vipassana retreats. I haven’t done one of the Goenka-based ones though, which seems to focus on the body scan as an entry point. I would like to, in-person retreats become available again.

Christina April 13, 2020 at 9:40 am

I read this post just as I went into my half-hour virtual group morning meditation and it formed a great jumping off point for that. Sound is the anchor for me during meditation. I can grasp that more than the sensation of breath. The inner movie still unmutes and unpauses itself all the time but knowing that this unwanted storytelling is not a failure but an inherent part of the practice is helpful and makes it a lot more easy to acknowledge it and move through it. Thanks for this, David.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 10:25 am

Yes, the movie goes on! But just seeing that it’s not the only thing happening allows you to keep from being automatically compelled by the story.

Amanda April 13, 2020 at 11:09 am

My technique to switch my emotions during movies is to try to perceive the actors as people going about their day jobs instead of being “real.” Great article. I am going to try this my next time I wake up at 3 am for a fret session.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 6:14 pm

I have done this, but mostly when the movie is boring… thinking about how they made the sets and how the actors felt as they performed is more interesting sometimes :)

LanChi Pham April 13, 2020 at 11:55 am

I had similar terrified feelings when my class watched The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even to this day, I don’t understand how that’s a movie for children. For whatever reason, my second-grade class LOVED that movie so we watched it several times that year. My trick for getting past my fear was similar to yours except I stayed completely still and just closed my eyes at the scary parts. Whenever someone asked me why my eyes were closed, I just said that parts of the movie was so boring that I fell asleep. No one ever questioned me again.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 6:15 pm

Nice cover!

Unbelievably I have never seen Nightmare Before Christmas. But stop motion is very creepy. I wouldn’t have liked it as a kid.

woollyprimate April 13, 2020 at 12:15 pm

Great post, as always!

Your talking about purposely blurring your vision to disconnect from what you were seeing reminded me of this episode of Black Mirror.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arkangel_(Black_Mirror)

I didn’t keep up my meditation practice after doing Camp Calm (twice), but one thing I do do pretty regularly, especially if I’m getting upset or anxious about something is to think to myself, “OK, where are you? What are you doing?” and that reminder will shift me into noticing the feeling of the car seat against my back or how my hands feel on the steering wheel or anything sensory in my environment. It brings me into the present and into the sensory.

David Cain April 13, 2020 at 6:18 pm

Black Mirror is genuinely scary. I’m glad it was me blurring my eyes and not my parents.

I’m glad the Camp left you with that habit. To me it’s a vital part of staying sane, just noticing where you are, and what it feels like to be here, even for a moment.

Sarah P April 14, 2020 at 10:33 am

Thank you for this post, David. It’s incredibly serendipitous that I read this now since I was just obsessing about the fact that someone ran past me and my kids on the sidewalk this morning with no consideration to physical distancing. I am definitely creating an elaborate narrative about it. I’ll try to transfer my attention to the sensory experience of this worry.

David Cain April 14, 2020 at 5:20 pm

I’ve definitely experienced that same sort of reaction. It’s kind of shocking once you realize how much of our suffering comes _only_ from the narrative side. One moment of discomfort/indignation can become an all-day ordeal in the mind, even when there’s nothing that can be done.

Jody April 14, 2020 at 2:11 pm

It’s pretty incredible, but I used to do the very same thing – cross my eyes a little so I didn’t see something in a movie or TV – and I didn’t remember doing it until I read your story. I don’t remember what I didn’t want to see, though. So I guess it worked? I like the idea this is a transferable skill, I will start using it. Thank you!

David Cain April 14, 2020 at 5:21 pm

Wow, I’ve never heard of anyone else doing this. I wonder how many kids have discovered this same trick.

Marina April 14, 2020 at 5:21 pm

A few years ago I used to have severe anxiety, and by accident I noticed that my fears would subside whenever I did crossword puzzles. That was before I knew much about mindfulness, but it saved me. I love the suggestion of moving the attention to the body whenever our attention is hijacked, as it’s much more accessible and practical.

Peter Burton April 15, 2020 at 4:56 am

Thank you naming & making these two distinctions clear, David. Having the body awareness that I have developed is a real gift and frees me from when the mind’s chatter gets unhelpful.

Nate St. Pierre April 15, 2020 at 8:03 am

I mean, David Bowie’s bulge in his turn as the Goblin King would strike fear into the most stalwart of chaps

Susie April 15, 2020 at 10:12 pm

Interesting! I developed a similar coping mechanism while watching something scary/uncomfortable – drawing circles with my thumb on my fingernails. I still catch myself doing it much more frequently than I should.

My 20-something daughter still has nightmares about Labyrinth!

Melissa Arres April 27, 2020 at 9:41 am

Our thoughts may not always be friendly to our lives. But you have correctly noticed that everything stretches from childhood. Watching a movie as a child can be a disaster and phobias in adulthood. Then our life is like a necklace. We string out different emotions and impressions. But unfortunately, due to circumstances, not all of us can withstand a flurry of emotions. This is especially difficult now in the era of the global coronavirus pandemic. Most of us at home are in fear of getting sick and dying. And to that add the fear of unemployment and moneylessness. It’s complicated everything. And not everyone can stand it. My brother lost his business. He had a pizzeria. Added to this the loan obligations. It’s terrible.
But the saddest thing is that all this psychological burden led to the fact that he became addicted to alcohol. Some might say it’s stupid and laugh. But in fact, it turned out to be more serious. Especially for me, because I don’t drink alcohol at all.
I was on the https://addictionresource.com/addiction-and-rehab-hotlines/ rehabilitation hotline. For me it was a shock that almost a tenth of the adult population of America suffers from alcohol abuse or addiction. And the reason in many cases is fear. Alcohol people try to drown out fear

Melissa Arres April 27, 2020 at 9:43 am

For myself, I realized in consultation with a psychologist that you need to learn to control your fears. Meditation is a great chance

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