The human mind is a double-edged sword. On the upside, it enables us to plan, solve problems, create goals and work towards our dreams… But the dark side of the human mind is that it also tends to haunt our inner world with unhelpful and painful thoughts.

We experience self-criticism, rumination and worry. For many of us, that inner voice can become our own worst enemy, crushing our self-esteem or driving us to feel constantly stressed, negative or anxious.

Why We Get Caught Up in Our Thoughts

Now we know that with emails or on social media, when we find some of the content coming through unhelpful we can hit the unfollow or unsubscribe button. However, the original meaning of the word ‘subscribe’ means to ‘express or feel agreement with something’, so to unsubscribe from something means to not express or feel in agreement with something.

The reason why we often get caught up in unhelpful thoughts is because we subscribe to them. In other words, we agree with them in the sense that we buy into them and take them seriously. We take them to be the ‘truth’ and often believe them without question. And when we do that we become pulled around by, and reactive to, our thoughts.

Learning to Let Go of Reactivity

A simple example is if your mind says “You look horrible today.” If you believe that thought, you will likely react with feelings of negativity, shame and sadness. In the same way, if your mind says, “Urrgh what a dreadful day it is today,” and you believe that thought, you’re likely to experience a low mood that may carry through your whole day.

But if you watch the mind, perhaps through meditation or self-observation, you’ll quickly notice that our minds are always generating thoughts. Some are helpful, some are neutral, some are unhelpful and a lot of them are just random ramblings, but all of them are just mental events. They’re simply bits of language that pass through our minds.

Although we cannot always choose what kinds of thoughts our minds generate, we can choose how we respond to them.

A Simple Practice to Unhook from Unhelpful Thoughts

So here’s a simple practice to help you unhook from unhelpful thoughts. Whatever your mind says to you, no matter how mean or awful or negative it is, just respond with an attitude of warmth, playfulness and even humour, and reply mentally to yourself, “Thanks mind. Thanks for sharing.”

So if your mind turns on its ‘inner critic mode’ and says something like “You’re such an idiot,” you mentally reply, “Thanks mind. Thanks for sharing.” If your mind starts up with worrying thoughts like “What will happen if my partner leaves me? It would be devastating,” you simply reply, “Thanks mind.”

If your mind says, “If you think this stupid ‘thanking the mind’ thing changes the fact that your life sucks, you’re kidding yourself,” you simply say to it, “Thanks mind.”

Reclaiming Your Attention

Once you have thanked the mind you want to deliberately change the focus of your attention to what you really want to be focused on in that moment. That may be a conversation you’re having, the work you’re doing or the sights and smells around you.

For example, you could choose to take a moment to focus on your breath as a way of dropping out of your mind and anchoring yourself back into the present moment again.

So this week I invite you to take this practice with you and any time you find you’re getting caught in unhelpful thoughts, have a play around with it.

Remember to do it with warmth, friendliness and humour. See if you can have a sense of smiling at the antics of the mind. No matter what your mind says to you, no matter how serious it claims to be, see if you bring a feeling of friendliness and humour to the mind and just mentally say, “Thanks mind.” Then you can bring your focus back to the fullness and aliveness of what’s happening in the present moment.

Each time you do this practice you build your capacity to unhook from unhelpful thoughts, free yourself from stress and suffering, and bring more lightness, ease and joy into your days. May it serve you well.

Learn the Art of Mindful Living with Melli O'Brien: