A student was sitting in the front of the room. It was about 10 minutes before the class was to start. He was just sitting there eating some yoghurt. So I walked up to him and said, “Hi Phillip! How are you doing?” He looked at me and said, “Oh Doc! Do you really want to know?” I said, “Sure.” He continued, “Oh man, things couldn’t be any worse for me. There is a guy who has been my business partner for quite a while and now he wants to sue me for some business problems. I have two papers that are due next week, I’ve got a huge exam this week, and I’m having some relationship problems with my wife.” He rattled off a few more things that were pretty serious for him. I said, “Wow! Sounds like you have a lot going on. You must really be feeling it. You’re pretty stressed, aren’t you?” He said, “Oh yeah, Doc, you have no idea! What should I do?”
I replied, “Do you really want to know?” “Yeah! Tell me, what should I do?”
I replied, “I think you should enjoy your yoghurt.”
He didn’t like that answer, but it is the best answer and you’ll soon understand why.
Characteristics of the mind
I’d like to start with some principles of the mind, some truths about how you and I think. These truths will help you to understand why you’re so stressed all the time and will also guide you to function mindfully, so that you aren’t stressed. Let’s start with principle #1.
#1 The mind can only have a dominant focus on one thing at a time
You can never think specifically about two or more things simultaneously. You can observe several things, but you can’t focus directly on more than one thing.
It may seem like that is what you do when you observe your thoughts jumping from idea to idea so quickly. It seems like you are able to think of many things at the same time, but that’s not the case. It is not possible for your mind to dwell on two different dominant thoughts at exactly the same time.
Here’s an example: You’re driving and you get a text message on your cell phone. It’s shouting at you to read it. As you divert your attention to your phone, you can’t focus on your driving. You can bounce back and forth from one to the other, but you can’t focus directly on both things simultaneously [which is why you should never text while you’re driving].
Another example: If you are reading this article, you can’t, at the same time, watch that show on television. You can read, then watch, then read, and then watch—but the two can’t happen together.
A second important aspect of the mind is:
#2 You are always free to think anything you choose
There are no restrictions as to what your mind can think about. Some have called this our God-given quality of ‘free agency’. Ultimately, no one has control over your thoughts except you. What you choose to think about is entirely your decision. At any conscious moment, you can think about anything you want to, and your choices are unlimited. There may be consequences, benefits or rewards for thinking certain ways, but ultimately, what you think is up to you.
For example, if I asked you to think of dancing elephants on the rings of Saturn, you could put pictures in your mind of how that might look. At the same time, you have the power to think of anything else, perhaps dolphins with zebra stripes jumping over the Golden Gate Bridge. What you think is always your choice.
The Principle of Attrition
Associated with your ability to choose what you focus on is the Principle of Attrition. Not only do you have the power to choose where to focus your thoughts, you also have the power to choose where not to focus your thoughts.
And as you cease focussing your thoughts on people, situations and events that you would consider negative ones, the negative nature of those unpleasant conditions or ideas lose their power to control or influence you. Essentially, if you aren’t thinking about them consistently, they lose their negative impact.
This is not the same as avoiding or ignoring things that you find unpleasant. Ignoring or avoiding still involves thinking about them. Instead, you simply keep your attention focussed on those areas of your life that you would consider positive, happy, and beneficial.
These first two principles are important to keep in mind so that you understand that your stress really does begin with your thoughts.
If you are free to choose any thought, and you can only have one dominant thought at a time, it is you that always decides exactly which thought is on the centre stage of your mind. [Also read What's your spotlight one?]
Understanding these principles also helps you realise the freedom you have to change your thoughts at any moment.
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