Recently, I’ve been re-evaluating my approach to work realising that I was trying to do too much, with too little focus. I don’t feel particularly smart admitting it but it’s a fairly common human failing that I’m sure you’ll recognise.
One of the steps I’ve put in place to support my wellbeing and bring better focus was to join a mindfulness course. I’ve learnt a lot. There are many different schools of mindfulness; the course I joined followed the Plum Village tradition (so called because it’s based in South West France in an area filled with plum trees).
One of the great things about the course was its emphasis on incorporating mindfulness into everyday life. My approach used to be to sit down for 20 minutes of practice and then get up and carry on in my normal (full-on) way!
In the Plum Village tradition you are offered different meditations with words. One phrase that stuck with me is
Is it true? Are you sure?
I think this is such a useful phrase to turn to when you’re worried or anxious. At times like these it’s easy for your thoughts to run away with themselves. A small seed of doubt, fear or anger, left unchecked, can quickly develop a life of its own. It then develops a story-line, array of characters and incidents. Before you know it, you’ve scripted a complete drama!
These stories not only create unease and stress during the day but also intrude at night when you’d be far better off asleep.
Sometimes people develop a habit of being anxious. They feel anxious on most days even though there may actually be nothing going on. Psychologists sometimes call this free-floating or generalised anxiety. The part of the brain associated with strong emotions such as fear and anger becomes over-sensitized. This then leads to a cycle of uncomfortable and draining reactivity.
So how can a simple phrase offered by a Buddhist monk help you to sleep better?
Anxious thoughts are usually irrational, exaggerated or catastrophic. They select the information that supports the anxiety, ignoring contrary evidence.
This isn’t because you or I are crazy! It’s because humans have a biological bias towards spotting danger. Back in the day when we lived outside, unprotected and surrounded by rival tribes and wild animals, those who were better at spotting potential dangers stood a better chance of survival.
Sometimes, particularly in challenging times, this protective inbuilt bias gets a little out of hand!
So the next time you lie awake worrying instead of sleeping or find your energy drained by a cycle of endless anxious thinking, ask the question:
This thing you’re worrying about: Is it True? Are you sure?
Externalising and evaluating your thoughts in this way may not come easy at first. With practice however, you’ll find it a useful tool to help quieten the mind.