During the midst of a session today with my client, dust particles were floating in the air catching the reflection of sunlight, thus filing the atmosphere with dancing particles of dust light. Hence, this grabbed both of our attention. We were in the middle of a psychoeducational conversation about automatic thinking and how we become enmeshed with our thinking, often resulting in a sincere belief that we ‘are' what we think.
I was explaining the term decentering as explained throughout Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MBCT) theory. Decentering is a principle notion that suggests the act of moving away from our thoughts so that we can begin to notice them as separate from the ‘self.'
It occurred to me to use the dancing dust particles as an example and metaphor. At this moment we could see the dust particles for what they were – flecks of particles in the air moving around in response to air movement. We both agreed that they are always there, however, most often we do not notice them. We are in a constant relationship with the dust particles because they are a part of the environment. Sometimes, we even react to them, like coughing or sneezing. And, generally speaking, it is rare that it would occur to us that the sneeze was a result of breathing in the speck of dust.
Now, let's imagine for a moment that these dust particles represent thoughts - lots of them.
Swarming around your head and continuously in your environment. They cannot be escaped, in the same way, that you cannot get rid of the particles in the atmosphere. What happens when you begin to notice that there are a TON of thought particles floating around the atmosphere of your mind? What might happen if you imagine taking all the thoughts that fill your mental landscape and placing them in the floating dust particles so that you can ‘see' them from a different perspective?
For my client, she began to recognize that thoughts are just there – always. Thus, each dust particle is a representation of a thought bubble. When the ‘self' can take a step back from the thought (decentering), then you (the witness) can begin to notice how invasive and prominent your thoughts can be. In so much that you can start to see that you are swarmed by them, at all times.
In essence, just like dust particles, there is no getting rid of thoughts. They are continually permeating our space.
My client went as far as suggesting that in her experience the thought particles have colonized her mindscape. They have taken over and have taken charge. This notion of ‘feeling colonized' by thought particles is a powerful insight. It suggests that there was an opening to the possibility that thoughts are part of the atmosphere, but that they have been allowed to take up far too much space; they were forced or placed in our atmosphere without consent.
Like any dusty situation, we need to ‘dust' the environment and cleanse it, clearing the space for fresh air. Sometimes dust settles and builds up and causes problems. This build-up is often an allergen and for some people, is a symbol of stagnation and not tending to one's environment. In keeping up with the metaphor, our thoughts can pile up one on top of the other potentially causing one to feel weighted down, anxious, or overloaded. Those thought particles are just hanging around in the mental sphere, not moving out of the way, creating a dust bunny pile of debris.
The debris is often filled with unprocessed emotions and gives rise to a state of being, i.e., mood.
What might happen if those ignored thought piles got stirred up, swept up, and redistributed into the atmosphere? As such, what might happen if you move away from the thought pile, stop identifying the self as the dust pile of thoughts in the corner, and recognize that the thoughts are merely particles of ‘dust' that genuinely have no meaning, until you assign the thought-particle with meaning.
They are just that – thoughts.
Beginning to pay attention to your relationship to your thoughts is a critical ingredient in one's path of healing and mental health. I know that this has been written about a million of times before. However, often when we internalize written content about thoughts, we experience the material as more ‘thoughts.'
My experience in the moment of noticing the dust particles was an AHA moment for both myself and my client as a visceral and visual experience of ‘knowing' that thoughts are merely dancing particles that exist with or without the ‘self.' They are merely there in the atmosphere. If we have a brain, we experience thoughts. But we do not need to become our thoughts or merge with our thoughts as the absolute truth of reality.
There are millions to choose from at any given moment. Where we choose to attune our attention by zooming in on a thought, impacts our internal and external experiences. This act gives rise to emotions, felt expression, and behaviour. The thought stream we attach our awareness to is either pleasurable or painful; comfortable or uncomfortable. Humans are seeking to experience pleasure and avoid pain at all times, according to experts in the field. And our relationship to our thoughts, which gives rise to the perception of moment-to-moment reality, is responsible to our experience of pleasure and pain.
As my client and I were paying attention to the dancing particles of dust in the air, we could either zoom in on one small particle of dust light or zoom out and take in the entire space of dancing particles. In either situation, there was an act of choice. If we consider this notion as it pertains to our thoughts, we can begin to understand the idea of ‘choice' and ‘choosing our thoughts.' What we are choosing is whether or not we zoom the lens in on a particular thought or not.
Before we become aware of this, we are in the space of automatic zooming per se (autopilot thinking). We are not paying attention to which thoughts our lens is zooming in on. We just let the lens zoom in and out at will, rarely questioning why it focuses in on one particular thought or perception. The term ‘notice your thoughts' albeit simple and direct, is incredibly hard at first. Once you notice how you are in relationship to your thoughts – enmeshed or decentered – you can begin to pay attention to which perception your gaze zooms in on. If you don't like a particular thought, you can zoom out again and take space from the thought.
Remembering that the thought itself has not vanished, but rather, that it is no longer receiving your gaze is important to consider. The thought doesn't die or shrivel up; it continues to exist in the atmosphere of ‘thought particles.' In fact, it doesn't even matter ‘why' you zoom in on one particular thought. Rather, it is more important to realize that you ‘are' zooming in on a particular thought. Followed by, an act of zooming out. Practicing alternating the lens and the zoom is part of the art of mindful awareness.
A helpful tip: Remind the self at any moment ‘Am I zooming in on any particular thought right now? If yes, what is it? How do I feel when I believe that thought? What would happen if I took my gaze wide and away from that thought for a moment? Why am I attaching my identity to that thought? If I am not my thoughts, then who am I?
A fantastic resource that has helped many is www.TheWork.com in which Byron Katie facilitates a simple process to question our stressful thinking.