Dis-Identification with Thoughts
A lot of what we’re doing with mindfulness is changing how we relate to our thoughts.
We’re not actively trying to stop or change the thoughts. That’s often the content of classical cognitive therapy. In Mindfulness-Based work we’re learning to observe the thoughts rather than change them. We’re leaning how to observe ourselves having the thoughts. Then they’re less ‘us’ and more something that is happening in us. It’s less “I’m a failure,” and more “A failure thought is in me,” or “A failure thought is here.” When we dis-identify with the thought we can look at it, and have some more freedom in how we respond to it.
In the third week of MBCT we enter a new phase of this dis-identification. We start practicing the three minute breathing space, the first step of which is to note what thoughts are currently present in our mind. In this, we are practicing noticing thoughts. Also in the third week, we start daily formal practice of meditating on the breath, then body and breath.
In the meditating instructions, we follow a very different practice than some other meditators. We are not practicing concentration, as it is usually taught. Usually the idea in meditation would be that the times I am noticing the breath are good, and the times my mind has wandered are like something I want to change, a work in progress. For us, by contrast, both the focus on breath and the wandering mind are of equal value and interest. When I notice the breath, that’s fine, it’s my intention. When I notice the mind has wandered I take the attitude of friendly interest in the thought. I note it as “thinking” or I get a little deeper and categorize it as “planning” or “worrying” or “remembering” or “ regretting” or any of a bunch of labels which you can make up for yourself. When we are noting the thought we are not trying to remember it, but rather just to give it a name. Things named are often less fearsome, after all. Once named, things are beginning to be understood. We just note the thought and return to the breath.
This practice in noticing, and noting, is also very helpful in the process of learning to dis-identify from thoughts. Every time we notice we have been thinking, and note it, we are practicing dis-identification. So both the breath and the thoughts are useful! They are little trainings in dis-identification.