Minding the Garden of Your Mind
It’s a warm sunny morning as I’m walking to the courthouse. Instead of soaking up the sun, I find myself nose deep in my own thoughts, thinking about what might go wrong in an upcoming case.
Back at the office, I’m sitting at my desk editing a letter and I catch myself worrying about an upcoming arbitration.
Later, while reviewing files with my legal assistant, I find it nearly impossible to keep focused on what she’s said because I can only think about the meeting I have in 20 minutes with a client.
Sometimes I feel like a dog with a collar around my neck being led around by an owner (my mind) who has no idea where he’s going.
Most of the time when I become aware of these intrusive thoughts, they aren’t positive. Like an invasive weed, they seemingly pop up when they aren’t wanted with the purpose of not just surviving, but thriving — in my head.
An invasive weed is defined as not being native to the specific location, that has a tendency to spread and causes damage to the environment — that sounds like the type of thoughts that I find invading my thought garden. How about you?
In any garden there are going to be weeds. If we tend the plot, we pull them before they get too big and go to seed. If we don’t, what happens? The weeds seemingly multiply overnight and we find that we can’t see what we planted. They choke out our once organized plot of land and it becomes less productive. The beautiful garden is no longer the joy it once was.
Most of my intrusive thought weeds have three common elements:
First, they interrupt what I’m trying to do — whether it’s reviewing a file with my legal assistant, talking with my wife, or focusing on a project. They have nothing to do with what I’m doing in the present moment.
Second, they’re typically about something that I either didn’t do in the past or need to do in the future. Not only are they not productive, they’re completely useless. They steal from the moment I’m trying to occupy.
Third, their primary impacts are distraction and anxiety. Not only do they make it hard for me to accomplish the task in front of me, but they unnecessarily shift my focus to an upcoming event or something that happened in the past. Over thinking the past often leads to depression and over focusing on the future can lead to increased anxiety.
There are four key components for dealing with thought weeds:
- Awareness of their existence. The less conscious I am of them, the deeper their roots burrow and the more prolific they multiply.
- Refrain from judging myself. It’s a simple fact that we all have meddlesome thoughts, just like gardens have weeds. Judging myself for their existence weakens my ability to positively respond. Often there is a root reason for the thought — such as getting my attention on an upcoming important event
- No fighting, surrendering or ignoring allowed. It seems that fighting these thoughts energizes them, ignoring doesn’t make them go away, and surrendering leads to chaos.
- Replace the weed thoughts. If I’m having thoughts about the scarcity of time because of all the work I have to do, I repeat to myself “I have an abundance of time.” If there’s an upcoming arbitration or trial that I’m having doubt or fear about, I’ll repeat the words “I am trusting in the future”.
For the less aggressive thought weeds, merely being aware of them takes care of the problem. However, some are more aggressive than others. The more significant the upcoming event, such as a trial, the more contentious they become which requires me to intentionally repeat words that I’ve often used in mediations to attack these more pugnacious thoughts.
The greater awareness we have about these meddlesome weeds in our garden, the sooner we are mindful of them and can more effectively deal with them before they create more problems.
The scientifically proven benefits of a mindfulness practice are plentiful. Jeena Cho, author of The Anxious Lawyer, says:
“The list of what mindfulness can do seems to be growing daily. It increases self-regulation, self-knowledge, as well as self-awareness. (That’s a lot of self-improvement!) Researchers are finding that practicing mindfulness can literally rewire and increase amounts of gray matter in the brain. It appears to impact the parts of the brain responsible for memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.” Here’s a link to Jeena Cho’s full article.
The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. Studies show that mindfulness reduces rumination and stress, boosts working memory, increases focus, lessens emotional reactivity, increases cognitive flexibility and increases relationship satisfaction. For more about the benefits of mindfulness, here’s a great article from the American Psychological Association.
If you haven’t tried mindfulness give it a shot for 10 or 20 minutes a day. Start with an amount of time and frequency that promotes a more healthy thought garden. Part of the problem is that we’ve become so used to operating in less than mindful way, that it’s become our normal mental world.
Regardless of your level of familiarity with mindfulness, check out Jeena’s site and book TheAnxiousLawyer.com
And if you have found a mindfulness practice that works for you, please share in a comment section below.