Why Thinking is Overrated: What’s the Deal with Mindfulness?


Think about the last time you felt stressed or low in mood. Did thinking about it help? It’s natural to feel like you can think your way out of feeling something. Thinking about things can solve our problems in the outside world, so it makes sense we get the impression that thinking about our internal problems can fix them.

The problem is, the brain doesn’t take kindly to orders. If I told you not to think about a blue basket ball right now, I can almost guarantee that’s exactly what you’ll think about. Trying to avoid a feeling or a thought only brings your attention to it. So, the more you try to tell yourself to stop feeling something, the more that feeling is going to hang around.

So what’s the solution?

Lately, mindfulness has been receiving a lot of attention, appearing in business conferences, self-help books, and cafés around the country. In August, the burger chain “Grill’d” ran a promotion called “Mindfulness Matters”.

What is mindfulness? I’m reminded of that scene from the Matrix: Nobody can be told exactly what mindfulness is. They have to experience it for themselves. That’s the idea anyway. It’s called an “experiential exercise”, meaning you have to experience it. Talking about mindfulness doesn’t help you understand what it’s really about.

Essentially, mindfulness is the mental state you get in when you focus your attention on the present moment. But it’s also more than that. It’s about not getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings. It’s about accepting whatever is happening with you in this moment, without judgement.

There are a number of reasons it’s been receiving so much attention. Firstly, I should say, mindfulness is not a new concept. In fact, it’s ancient. It dates back to at least the sixth century BC. It has been a part of Eastern philosophy for some time. So why are we all noticing it now? Well, the main reason is that the field of science has started paying attention to it. There are now a number of studies that have found strong evidence in support of mindfulness as a mental health treatment. People have also been using it as a means of engaging with their life more fully and in a way that allows them to get more from it.

Have you ever been driving when, after some time, you realise that you haven’t been paying attention? You might not even have any memory of the last few minutes driving. This is referred to as “automatic pilot” mode. It might seem like a miracle you didn’t crash. Often, you’ve been thinking about something, and you’ve completely missed out on everything that is happening around you.

As you can probably imagine, living your life in autopilot mode means you will miss out on potentially rich experiences. Our brains are designed to think about and plan for the future. The problem is that, sometimes, we can miss out on the present. In the words of John Lennon, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

The problem with thinking:

Human beings have huge prefrontal cortices. This is the area of the brain that, among other things, allows us to have abstract thoughts (for example, thoughts about anything beyond what is happening here and now). When you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner tonight, or whether you can afford that new car, that’s your prefrontal cortex at work. This ability has been, arguably, our greatest strength as a species. It allows us to plan for things ahead of time and helps us to work together to achieve things that would not be possible without abstract thinking. But, it could also be argued to be one of our greatest weaknesses. When you’re preparing for a speech and you keep imagining the crowd falling dead silent on a joke or judging you in some way, that’s also part of the same process.

Imagine you had to make a huge journey. You’re driving interstate. There’s a part of your brain that is like the kid in the back seat asking “are we there yet” constantly throughout the trip. In order to answer that question, you have to use your prefrontal cortex to think about your goal (arriving at your destination) and how far you are from achieving that goal (how many hours until you arrive). This is great, because it helps us complete the task better. We know how much food to bring with us in the car, how much petrol we’ll need, and when we need to start looking-out for somewhere to sleep. Our brains work great for this kind of task.

The problem is, we use this same process in unhealthy ways. Think about a long-term goal you have. Maybe you want to have a family, or to become the general manager at your workplace, or just to have a lot of money. Your brain is going to constantly compare where you are with where you want to be. Instead of being focused on what you have achieved, you will be focused on how far you are from achieving whatever else you want. In the case of the road trip, it’s telling you “you have five hours before you get there”. In the case of becoming GM at your workplace, it’s telling you “you have at least three promotions before you can get to that point and you haven’t even received one promotion yet. Plus, there are other people at your work who are better workers than you etc.”.  This is a guaranteed way to make yourself feel down or anxious.

It’s largely accepted today that our emotions are closely linked to our thoughts. Whether we are aware of it or not, the thoughts we have lead to the emotions we feel. This is where mindfulness comes in. Being mindful allows you to let your thoughts be in the background while you focus on the present moment. It is a difficult skill to master and, like physical skills, you need to practice in order to get better at it. But, once you’re able to be mindful in your daily life, you’ll find that you’re less bothered by things and better able to get the most out of life.

Image from Ian Iott