Mindfulness for noticing the stories in our heads

Stories in the head by Wendy Ann GreenhalghI’ve often wondered what my life would be like without stories. I can remember so clearly the thrill and sense of mystery I felt the first time letters became words before my eyes, formed sentences, told me a story. Stories, words, language – have been a delight, a consolation and an inspiration for as long as I can remember. So there is this love of stories, and also the need to get the poems, plays or stories chundering away in my mind – out, and down on a page before my head bursts!

Our minds are natural story-makers, they’re constantly creating; not just fiction, poetry, Facebook posts and blogs, but also tales about our pasts and about our futures; fables about why we’re not good enough, smart enough, could have done better; myths about our relationships, our talent (or lack of it), our fortune or misfortune. We have world-class imaginations, fantasising and daydreaming we excel at. But here’s the important thing to remember… it’s ALL fiction! Nothing that goes on in our heads is real. It’s just thoughts. Mindfulness helps us to wake up to this fact and it’s a liberation. Why? Because then you get to choose the stories, you get to select which tape you play.

What a relief to know that the self we imagine failing or succeeding is no more real than a character in a novel. The critical voice that tells us our current creative piece isn’t good enough or that we won’t make our deadline – is no more substantial than a voice in a radio-play and we can turn it off. Every storyline that we play out, this happened and then this and then this, is only the firing of neurons, a flicker of light on the silver screen of our mind. It might have happened once upon a time, in the moment, but now it’s just a memory, and memories are just a collection of thoughts. I’m going to say it again. Everything that happens in our heads is pure fiction. Celebrate!

In my blog on too much thinking I talked about how mindfulness practice can start to make us aware of the constant cycling of thoughts, emotions, reactions and compulsions that make up the average human experience of mind. As we become more used to focusing our mind on the practice of meditation, and as we start to come into the present moment for slightly longer intervals, we start to become aware of our mind’s capacity for creating stories. This is beneficial for everyone.

Here are some examples of the ways our story-telling minds act when we’re meditating. First, we sit and after a while we notice our minds leaping forward to what we’ve got to do later. This future-thinking narrative can become pretty detailed, we can spin off into worrying too, reacting emotionally to the thoughts in our heads – with anxiety or tightness in our bodies. But this is all the future, it isn’t now, it isn’t real. We come back to the present. We come back to the present and notice our back is really hurting. It’s been getting worse recently. We can’t possibly sit here meditating with a painful back. We slide into self-pity, we run that story about how are back’s always been a problem, and then remember all the times in the past it’s let us down. Pretty soon we’re in the past, not in the present. We come back. We come back to the breath. We start running another story-of-us in our heads. We come back – hopefully.

So how can we expose the stories in our heads for what they are – just works of fiction? How can we begin to take control and choose the tales we listen to (or write)? The solution is to use the very thing we’re best at – WORDS!

Here’s a simple mindfulness exercise that uses words to make us more conscious of what’s in our heads.

  • Take a few minutes to sit quietly. Focus on the feeling of your body sitting in the chair, on your hands in your lap, or on the in and out of your breath – whichever works best for you.
  • Allow yourself to come into the present moment through the sensory experience of body and breath. However, when you get distracted, when that monkey-mind gets going and starts telling stories, which it will, drop a word into your meditation, Label what’s happening, give it a name. THINKING.
  • Every time you catch yourself thinking, leaping into past or present, going though that familiar self-talk, say it how it is: THINKING.
  • If a thought (or emotion) is particularly persistent and powerful, you might like to give it a more specific label. WORRY, FEAR, or JUDGEMENT – for example.
  • If it’s a physical sensation, you could label that too. PAIN.
  • Use this label – your choice of word – to gain an insight into the nature of the thought, emotion or sensation distracting you – and then try letting that label go and just staying with what you’re experiencing.
  • Cultivate a curious attitude to your experience – and don’t make yourself bad or wrong for drifting off into a story. Your mind’s just doing what minds do.
  • Continue to focus on your breath, allowing thoughts or emotions to arise if they do, and if they do – name them for what they are, and then watch them gradually loosen a little and even fade away, before returning to your point of focus – the body or the breath.
  • Label – and then return to your mindfulness focus.
  • Label – and then return to the present moment.

Of course the stories in our heads have been there a long time. Many of them have been stacked on our shelves since childhood, or have been read so many times that we know them off by heart. Stories like this can be persistent and sometimes pernicious. But these too can change over time, we can write other tales.

We shouldn’t underestimate mindfulness and the power of words. This labeling of experience is a powerful meditation practice. Over time it stops us giving so much weight to the thoughts that arise in our minds and enables us to choose rather than react to our experiences to a much greater extent. And when we can’t choose, when a particularly powerful and persuasive story is running in our minds, it supports us whilst we just stay with it, noting it for what it is and noting our response to it in the present moment. Ah – and once we start to do that, then truly, we are writers, not just directing the narratives we shape on the page, but the stories in our heads too.

4 thoughts on “Mindfulness for noticing the stories in our heads

  1. It’s actually quite fun to do this when you have a lot on your mind. Play with it and see how many stories you can catch yourself starting. Mine often begin with egoic guilt trips like ‘I’m useless’, ‘I’m so stupid’, ‘I am… this or that’. Rather than buying in to it you can catch it at it’s root. One day when I got up and had a particularly good meditation I spent the day trying to focus on the breath as much as possible, throughout that day I counted what must have been 100s of stories which I would have otherwise been caught up in. Mindfulness is invaluable if you tend to be the doubting type.

    • Thanks for this comment. So true – catching the stories as they start in our heads is one of the most liberating aspects of mindfulness practice, and is invaluable for changing our habits of thinking. Over time, thanks to neuroplasticity, it even rewires our brains!

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