Imagine being able to feel at peace and in control of life no matter what stressful and anxiety-provoking situations you face. While this might seem like the stuff of fiction or something reserved for the most enlightened monks living in serene seclusion, it is something every single one of us can achieve. Granted, there isn’t a quick-fix or an easy button that will instantly bring inner peace. This peaceful state of existence has to be intentionally cultivated and involves forming a new relationship with our thoughts, those pesky things that are the true root of much of our misery. While it’s not possible to eliminate thoughts, we can patiently and persistently practice going beyond them. It is there that we will be peaceful and in control no matter what is happening around us.
Thoughts Are Trouble
Many psychologists, including (but not limited to) those who practice cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), assert that the stressful situations we face aren’t our actual problems; instead, it’s our thoughts about them that cause us angst. (There are exceptions to this, of course, such as abuse, trauma, and other instances of compromised safety and health.) Thinking and overthinking and ruminating about the past or the future all contribute to chronic stress, which in turn is at the root of many mental and physical health disorders. Automatic negative thoughts can race through our mind and seriously interfere in our quality life.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just turn off our thoughts and stop thinking about problems and stressors at will? We definitely could be at peace if we could easily just empty our mind of all thoughts we didn’t want. If you’ve ever been told to “lighten up,” or “stop worrying,” you know how impossible (and annoying) these ideas are. We can’t just stop stressing out or instantly get over anxiety.
If, like me, you’ve tried to stop anxious or stressful thoughts, avoid them, argue with them, or otherwise tangle with them, you know that doing these things only keeps us stuck in them. After all, when we’re struggling against our thoughts, our attention is on precisely what we don’t want.
So what about shifting our attention to what we do want instead? Replacing one thought with another, a key part of CBT, can be helpful and does have its place. The problem with this technique, though, is that we’re still stuck in thoughts. Don’t abandon this technique, but sometimes (often) it’s important to take a step back from it to give your mind–and your body’s stress reaction to your mind and thoughts–a break. When we go beyond our thoughts, we nurture inner peace.
How to Go Beyond Thoughts and Be Peaceful
Mindfulness, while not a cure-all to stress, anxiety, and problems, offers a way to, one moment at a time, go beyond our thoughts and enjoy inner peace.
At its core, mindfulness is a relationship with yourself and with the world around you. It’s refreshing because it isn’t another set of rules and principles to memorize and strict procedures to do or steps to take. It’s not a flashy fad with hollow promises of a perfect life. It’s not a quick-fix approach to happiness. Instead, mindfulness is a way of life, of showing up completely and relating to yourself, others, and situations calmly and purposefully no matter what obstacles, stressors, and challenges pop into your path.
Mindfulness is an approach to life that allows you to live in your real moments rather than trapped in your thoughts and emotions about the past, present, or future—your mind is full of the tangible aspects of the present moment that you take in with your senses, and you live life at face value rather than imposing judgments or expectations on yourself or your experiences. Mindfulness involves paying attention and noticing where you are, who you’re with, and what you’re doing.” (from Mindfulness for Beginners on ChoosingTherapy.com)
Mindfulness offers us many ways to transport ourselves out of our mind to live in the present, experiencing it as it is rather than trapped in our thoughts about it or concerns about things that already happened or worries and what-ifs about things that haven’t yet happened. These strategies in particular help us go to the tangible place beyond thoguhts:
- Openness and curiosity. Our thoughts agitate us by imposing judgements and assumptions on events, situations, people, ourselves, and our life in general. To go beyond these critical thoughts, get curious. Become open. If your thoughts are telling you that you’ll certainly fail at something, for example, you might say, “Hmmm. Maybe. I wonder what else could happen,” and then pay attention to what you are doing right now.
- Notice physical sensations. Leave your thinking mind by noticing what your body can feel. If you’re on a walk and catch yourself ruminating about that argument you had with your partner, catch yourself stuck in the stressful thought and then notice the feel of the breeze on your skin or a pleasant scent wafting through the air. In doing this, you’re letting your body, rather than your brain, be in charge and thus going beyond thinking.
- Practice concentrating. The thinking mind is also a distracted, wandering mind. When it begins down a path, it automatically branches off into tangents until our bodies are living on autopilot while our thinking minds run away with upsetting thoughts. This is what the mind is designed to do, but you can teach it to take breaks and go beyond thinking. To do this, pause regularly throughout your day to concentrate on one thing. Focus on this thing (a flower, a picture, a pencil on your desk–anything will do) for a few moments, noticing its color, size, shape, minute details, texture, sounds, and more. Add taste and smell when appropriate. Set a timer, and pay attention to this object until it goes off. Start with brief periods, perhaps 10 or 15 seconds, and gradually do longer focus exercises. Your mind will begin to think, and that’s okay. Just notice it and go beyond it again to focus on your senses and the object.
When You Go Beyond Thought, You Are In Control
Despite how it often feels, your thoughts aren’t in control of your life. When we’re stuck in them, they do seem to have control, and they rob us of inner peace. When we go beyond thoughts and physically into the moment via our senses, we not only cultivate peace but gain control over our lives as well.
When we’re not following our thoughts, we’re free to experience each moment as it comes (yes, even the stressful ones). We can enjoy the good times and stay present and centered in the not-so-good ones. We then have the control to choose our responses to any moment we’re in, any situation we face.
When we’re not lost in thoughts, we can remain focused on our values, embracing them and taking intentional action toward what we want.
Every new moment is an opportunity to go beyond thought again and again, to be present in this moment. For true peace and control despite stress and problems, cultivate the habit of going beyond thinking.
Enjoy this excerpt from The Mindful Path Through Anxiety: An 8-Week Plan to Quiet Your Mind & Gain Calm to help you begin to go to the place beyond thought.