The mindfulness movement is big right now, and thank goodness for that. But it isn’t new. It’s the basis for Buddhist practice and has been pondered, pontificated and practiced for thousands of years. I happen to feel that “Mindfulness” is a misnomer. Our minds are too full already. They take over our lives too much. I prefer to call it “Mindlessness.”
If we could all focus on our bodies, our senses, our lived experiences of sensuality and joy, perhaps we would suffer less. Or, even better, regard our suffering differently. There will always be suffering. It is a guarantee of our human existence. We are guaranteed to suffer, grow old, experience pain, lose everyone and everything we love and eventually die. But in the mean time we have access to so much beauty and joy if we can help ourselves see it.
If I could choose an acupuncture point or mix an herbal formula or compound a pill that would end the phenomenon of overthinking, I’d retire young, knowing I’d changed the world for the better. I’d probably win some major award. Something humanitarian. It would be a quick fix that could propel us past the self-obsession/self-criticism game, something that would allow us to invest our mental energy into more meaningful endeavors.
I have many theories as to why we are this way. The most simple, is that in our Paleolithic lives, the ones that humans lived for 2.5 million years before we very recently found ourselves existing in the lifestyles that we now inhabit, our negative bias- our brains’ ability to seek out danger and obsessively figure out how to avoid it- kept us alive. Now it mostly makes us feel crazy, caught in the maze of our minds. It makes us isolate ourselves from the people we love, beat ourselves up for not being perfect, and generally obsess over things we have limited control over.
The good news? We have the power to change how our brains work. The bad news? It’s hard and takes dedication.
Late summer is the season of the Earth element, the digestive system and colors that range from orange to yellow. It is the harvest season, cast in a golden light. The energetic of the earth element is circular. As the earth itself rotates, so does the earth element in each of us. It represents boundaries, nourishment of self and others, the intellect, and literal grounding. The earth element out of balance contributes to obsessiveness and overthinking. The mind that cannot help but chew continuously on a thought. The idea that keeps circling back again and again, digging itself deeper.
The more we practice thought patterns, the more comfortably those neural synapses fire. It’s why practiced movements in our bodies become natural. But to change mental patterns, we have to work with the muscle memory of our brains. We have to practice good thinking hygiene. We have to remember the world around us and connect with it. We have to keep our perspective.
I asked my brilliant community what they do when they are overwhelmed with thoughts. Rather than me, an “expert,” telling you what to do, I’d rather suggest that we all have an intuitive sense of what we need to move through that stuck place. Even if that feels hard to access while you’re immersed in it, and even when intuition and fear/instinct feel hard to differentiate.
Valerie says: Meditation. Exercise. Mindfulness. Being aware that I am not my thoughts. Using imagery like a gust of wind blowing away the negative or excessive thoughts. Or clipping the thoughts like flowers.
Jensen says: Run. Exercise. Any type of intense physical exertion. It allows you to either completely forget your vexing issues while you concentrate on the demanding task-at-hand, or conversely analyze an issue while you avoid thinking about the physical discomfort. Either way, you come away feeling better.
Tobi says: I practice somatic exercises as well as refocusing and redirecting, not only my physical line of vision, but sounds and smells. Breathing into what ever I am experiencing in the moment
Zoe suggested gardening and this meditation I had never heard before that made me laugh and also let go.
Jessica says: I have a 20 min dance playlist, that is guaranteed to make me dance, and I dance, for at least 1 song
Emily says: Talk to someone you feel safe with, who just listens and doesn’t try to change your thoughts
Webster says: I discovered singing is good for overriding internal monologues
Megan and Caroline agree about journaling.
Li says: stop judging the feeling, and breath into it, see what giving it a little more space does to free it up
Erin says: I lift really heavy weights. It helps me get grounded
And of course Lilly and I say acupuncture. I’m copying all of these quotes because they begin to suggest something that Brooke brought up when I asked her, which is the polyvagal theory. She put it very clearly when she said, “story follows state.” She continues, “Essentially if we calm our nervous system the story falls away. The story is a result of our nervous system telling us we are unsafe and our mind trying to figure out why.”
And this is such an important point. We are narrative creatures. If something happens, we want to know why. We want to make sense of things, and to do so, we weave our life’s happenings into a story. It is a mechanism of the brain we have little control over, but when we see it for what it is, the story has less power. We begin to train ourselves to drop the story mid-sentence.
Cyclical thinking centers itself around a story we’ve made up to explain why our autonomic nervous system, the unconscious one that reacts and responds to the world around us- sympathetic “fight or flight” or parasympathetic, “rest and digest”- feels heightened. When often the story should go like this: “I waited too long for breakfast” or “I stayed up too late watching shows” or “I’m worried about not having enough money to pay the bills” or “I almost got hit by that car.” It goes like this: “That person hates me” or “I said the wrong thing during that conversation” or “Maybe this relationship isn’t right for me.”
And then we fixate, elaborating the story, detailing it so it stretches from our past to our future, distracting us from our present. What’s brilliant about what everyone said in response to my question, is that all of those things calm and settle the autonomic nervous system. When we are no longer in “fight or flight” mode, we don’t need a story about why we feel the way we do. The story falls away. We can get back to “rest and digest”.
Let’s talk about how to get the nervous system regulated in difficult moments. I will defer to my dear friend and stellar practitioner Victoria Albina, who wrote a whole article on how to regulate the vagus nerve, which is the cranial nerve responsible for stimulating our organ systems to function properly and is the most direct way to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system.
“Stress” and “Inflammation” are household terms now, inevitabilities of how most of us live. The work ethic and food industry in the United States have changed dramatically over the last 50 years in a way that negatively impact both. Systemic oppression and injustice have created stress and therefore inflammation in our society since its beginning. We only have so much control over those things. When able to, finding a healthy, grounded lifestyle within these systems is helpful. But we can also take a shortcut, by stimulating the vagus nerve directly when we can. I encourage you to read Vic’s article in full, but I will list a few things that stimulate the vagus nerve to intrigue you:
Singing, chanting and gargling: vibration to the throat stimulates the vagus nerve
Exercise: movement stimulates the digestive system and encourages food waste to move through
Deep, slow breathing: everything speeds up when we are stimulated, making us feel an urgency that isn’t actually there a lot of the time. Slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve but it also slows us down so we can make a conscious, good decision instead of a quick one
Yoga: sun salutations specifically stimulate the vagus nerve
Acupuncture: it’s proven to stimulate vagus nerve function
Massage: even self massage to the feet, neck muscles and abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve
Cold water or air: exposure to cold slows everything down and brings on the parasympathetic nervous system
In Chinese medicine, the link between the gut and the brain has always been known. The digestive system helps us digest food and information. The intellect is paired with the digestive system as our way of integrating the external world in a way that nourishes our internal world. Now it is finally proven by Western science that our digestive health is a major factor in our mental health. The vagus nerve has a major impact on digestive health and letting go of the stories that no longer serve us.
Next time you find yourself mid-story, within a long narration about why you’re feeling bad, consider just letting it go. Take a walk, breathe deeply, make up a silly song, dance around the room, stop and notice the world around you. There doesn’t need to be any judgment about the story. You can even thank your brain for keeping you alive and tell it lovingly to shut up.
Bryan Minear, Ashley Batz, Tachina Lee, John Arano, Jason Rosewell