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Thinking Consciously

Fara Choi Ashimoto
Headington Institute, 2013.


Life is all about choices. And one choice that we face daily, hourly, every minute…is how we think. Many different things happen to us in life. Often we have limited or no control over these events. However, even as they are unfolding, we are interpreting and evaluating them. We’re thinking some version of “this is good or bad” and, usually, “I am good or bad.”

Our minds are always busy interpreting life’s events. Sometimes our thoughts are so habitual, and happen so quickly, that it doesn’t seem like there was any thought at all. We practice some thoughts and reactions so many times that certain ways of thinking become almost automatic. For example, you miss an important appointment and powerful feelings of frustration, guilt and self-loathing begin to mount. If you slow down the tape recorder in your mind you might see that you’ve been telling yourself repeatedly, “I’m a complete idiot. That was an unpardonable screw-up. I can’t do anything right this week!” The feelings of frustration and self-loathing stem directly from your interpretation of the event. You have thought them into being. Your thoughts have produced a mood. That mood will influence behavior.

We are always telling ourselves something. The only choice you have in the matter is whether you’ll do it consciously or unconsciously. Today, try taking the role of a neutral observer – of yourself. At intervals throughout the day watch your mind as if from the outside. Try labeling what you’re thinking at different points as if witnessing someone else. For example, after you miss that appointment, your witness might comment dispassionately and without judging, “anxious, self-hating.” At another point during the day the witness might note that you are “worrying” or “planning.” You may wonder what the point of this is, but I encourage you to try it. The witness stance by its nature facilitates change. Simply observing from a neutral perspective that we’re worried and anxious can sometimes help those thoughts and feelings to arise, crest, and depart. Practicing detached observation can help our negative thoughts to lose some of their compulsive hold and toxicity.

However, the benefits of learning to pay more attention to the constant stream of “mind-chatter” running through your head go beyond just being able to cultivate detachment. When you can identify what you’re thinking, you can consider the possibility that your first thought and reaction may not be accurate or helpful. You can challenge your thinking and look for other explanations for what happened. You can choose more balanced and positive thoughts.

  • Practice being a neutral observer. Make notes. Don’t judge!
In the next 30 days:
  • Look at your daily notes.
  • What patterns do you see?
  • What other options are there of messages to tell yourself?

Adapted by Fara Choi from our Peace by Piece series written by Lisa McKay.

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