Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
“By going out of your mind you come to your senses”
From one highly productive mind owner to another, I know it can be difficult to get a break from the seemingly constant streaming of chattering thoughts that our over-stimulated minds tend to generate. It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that over values thinking and under values emotions.We are surrounded and bombarded by thinking stimuli all day long. Think of how much of your day you spend not looking at our listening to language of some kind. I bet for many of you it’s hard to remember moments of true silence within any given day. Even when surrounded by the quiet-calm of a warm and inviting shower, our thinking mind will keep chirping away.
Most of us are thinking addicts. We can’t stop thinking. Why do most of us tend to feel restless and uncomfortable when put into quiet spaces without distractions? Uncomfortable feelings being generated when we do nothing – isn’t that interesting? It’s very similar to feelings people get when they are withdrawing from an addictive behavior.
One of the most powerful brain growth and remodeling capacities we have is our attention. Attention comes from the Latin root: attendere meaning to stretch towards. Your attention is your ability to stretch your mind towards an object. It is the camera lens of your conscious life. Becoming more skillful at what we put our attention on is one the best and most effective mind-skills to cultivate.
What we put our attention on increases brain growth in the precise areas that deal with the object of our focus. Cab drivers in London are required to take a rigorous written driving exam (only 50% of people who take the test receive a passing grade) in order to get their license. This requires the cab drivers to consistently dedicate their attention to the roadways of the city and rigorously study maps – learning how to create an internal map of the city in their minds. It has been shown through MRI data that significant increases in grey volume size in the posterior hippocampus (an area associated with visual-spatial memory) were seen after 4 years of this type of training.
Studies have shown that chronic stimulation from environmental stimuli, including various forms of media, that are either frightening and or anger provoking can increase the size of the amygdala (the part of brain that reacts to novel stimuli and is the terminus for both the RAGE and FEAR circuitry in the mammalian brain). This chronic stimulation often leads to hypersensitization which makes your brain’s FEAR and RAGE circuity more likely to be triggered in the future. This is similar to the increased heat sensitivity to water you feel on your skin after it was overstimulated by the sun creating a sunburn.
“Where attention goes energy flows.” -Tony Robbins
From the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep we are stimulated by language and symbols. Whether it’s listening to music, watching TV, going on social media, etc.…our attention is saturated by other people’s thoughts and our own thoughts. It’s no surprise that this chronic stimulation has created hypersensitive and hyperreactive thinking minds that create incessant chatter that often dovetails into negativity and irritability.
Most of our minds gorge on enormous amounts of mental stimulation every day. Our thinking-mind becomes both addicted to and hypersensitive from this overstimulation which increases its susceptibility to overreact. When we go into reactive thinking modes our thinking mind programs tend to regress into outdated programmed patterns to work out why we are in a reactive state and how to resolve it. The problem is there is usually a mismatch between the strategies built-into these ingrained reactive thinking programs and what is required to change self-perpetuating reactive states of mind. In other words, reactive states of mind take on the characteristics of a positive feedback system that is rigid and mainly closed off to new and potentially useful information.
One style of reactive thinking is called rumination. Rumination is often triggered when we are suffering and our minds begin to search into our past memories to find a solution to fix or overcome our current suffering. Rumination leads to various unhelpful thinking patterns such as: fishing for explanations for why he or she did this or that, or why you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, or in fantasizing and hoping to make a better past.
Another style of reactive thinking is worrying. When we worry our thoughts swarm around fearful and ominous predictions of our future. We get tricked into thinking that we are preparing ourselves for an uncertain future but fail to see how our mind is falling into a set of inaccurate and highly biased information that leads us into feeling more helpless and anxious. Instead of being accurately prepared for our future, we tend to feel overwhelmed and powerless and are either paralyzed to take effective action or make poor choices as a result.
Collectively these 2 styles of reactive thinking are called the Rumination-Worry (RW) mode of thinking. This mode of thinking has been researched by cognitive neuroscientists and tends to generate a style of thinking that is heavily biased towards negative interpretations, predictions, and perceptions concerning the world, our relationships with others, and towards our self-concept. This “negativity bias” of the thinking mind especially when it is in the RW mode is a widely accepted phenomenon in cognitive neuroscience. Rumination is strongly correlated with depressive mood states and worry is strongly correlated with anxious mood states. Both contribute to a distorted view of the world and to unnecessary suffering.
One way back to balancing our overstimulated thinking systems and decreasing our hypersensitivity is by learning to redirect your attention away from the world of language and symbols and back into the world of direct experience through our 5 external senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) and our internal bodily sensations (interoception – our 6th sense). There are at least two reasons why using this strategy helps to reduce overthinking.
Your conscious attention bandwidth is narrow (estimated to be 10-60 bits per second). Shifting your attention away from thinking and towards your 6 senses will fill up your attentional bandwidth with sense data which leaves little bandwidth left for conscious thoughts to arise and take your attention hostage.
Shifting your attention towards your 6 senses will enhance the areas in your brain that are involved with processing sense data giving them more power, more precision, and greater accuracy. Over time, this will make it easier for you to transfer your attention into the world of direct experience and less likely to be taken over by the world of concepts, symbols, and language.
The beauty of directing your attention to go into your senses and out of your mind is that our senses are always on and always available to us whenever we are thinking. They work for us spontaneously without us needing to lift a single finger of effort.
Many of us when dealing with too many thoughts tend to fight them, suppress them, distract ourselves from them, force them to be different, bargain with them, or get upset at them – all strategies that generally end up with us getting bulldozed by our thoughts and becoming their slave. A more helpful way to deal with a reactive mind state is to use a sense directed strategy which redirects our most precious mind capacity, our attention, away from the verbal symbols being generated by our minds and towards the direct experience of reality through our senses. By doing so, we gain the ability to snap out of the trance of incessant and unhelpful thinking and give our mind a much-needed time out from old and rigid thought programs.
The raw sense data that we receive from our shift of attention towards direct experience gives our minds an opportunity to integrate new information and generate possible creative solutions to the challenges we face. It also aids in the development of a powerful mind capacity to observe our thoughts rather than be absorbed by them. This observer capacity, sometimes referred to as metacognition, gives us the ability to create psychological space between us and our thoughts, and helps us to become more conscious of the biased, unhelpful, negative thought patterns that dominate us when we are in a RW mode of thinking.
The development of metacognition, the ability to look at your thoughts rather than from them, allows us greater access to edit and upgrade our old thinking programs – making them less biased and more effective at generating helpful solutions to the adversities we face.
Set aside time each day to practice shifting your attention away from thoughts and towards your 6 senses. Start with a 3-minute practice each day and build from there. You may find it helpful to use a recording device and read the passage in blue and then listen to the recording.
Close your eyes and direct your attention to the sounds in your environment. Notice their pitch, their volume, and their distance from body. Whenever your attention drifts back into thinking, simply notice when that happens and gently shift it back to the sounds in your environment. Observe that not only can you hear sounds, but you can feel them too. Sounds have a vibratory quality that you can perceive. You may notice that not only can you listen with your ears, you can listen with your entire body. (Pause for a few moments)
Next shift your attention to sensing and feeling your body. Start with your feet and notice how your socks and footwear feel (tight, loose, etc.) and if you’re sitting or standing how the ground pushes up to support your feet and how the weight of your feet pushes down on the floor beneath you. Finally move your attention into your hands – starting with your dominant hand and receive the sensations present there. Many people report a tingling or buzzing sensation when they sense from within. Move your attention from your dominant to your non-dominant hand. Slowly switch back and forth between sensing your each of your hands. Once you get the hang of feeling each of your hands, then receive the sensations from both of your hands simultaneously. (Pause for a few moments) Observe what happens to your thinking when your attention is anchored to the sensations in your hand. Then bring your practice to a close.
Habit Making Tip: It’s best when you are learning something new to associate it with something you already do. For instance, you can link this practice to brushing your teeth and make a commitment to yourself that: “I will do 3 minutes of going into my senses practice before I brush my teeth at night.” Make good on your commitment and you will build personal integrity and the beginnings of a deceptively powerful mindfulness-based practice. You can gradually build up your practice using your entire body and its 6 senses. Make it into a game of exploration and with consistent practice you will begin to balance your mind and be able to upgrade your old thinking patterns.
This is just the beginning of learning how to shift your mind’s attention away from thinking and into sensing. It’s a skill that will need consistent practice to sharpen. Start this practice when you are not in a reactive state until you get the hang of it. In future articles we will go into more depth on the Rumination-Worry mode and build on the going into your senses practice. Feel free to experiment in your own ways and report back on what you discover.
Coming soon: Get into your Senses and out of your Mind Part II