Thoughts are not facts. When we’re upset, our thoughts seem valid—yet it’s exactly when our emotions get stirred up that our thinking can easily become distorted. Conclusions based on distorted thinking can’t be trusted.
When my friend Sharon returned from a business trip, she was feeling disturbed and uncomfortable. As she described her experience, she clarified why: She had been working remotely in Africa and knew few of the other participants in her company’s conference. She wanted to be included, but wasn’t part of the main team; she felt uncharacteristically shy and felt that her participation wasn’t up to her typical style. Sharon was aware of the tremendous talent that surrounded her and wished she’d had more opportunity to interact with her co-workers.
Taking a Different Vantage Point Gives Perspective When Thoughts Are Overwhelming
Sharon observed her feelings and thoughts with great skill, teasing out the mixture of sometimes conflicting emotions she felt, but importantly, she wasn’t condemning herself or anyone else. If her thought had been “I’m so inept, I can’t compare to these other people,” she might have gotten carried away with ruminations about her inadequacies. By asking herself “What is this I am feeling, in this moment?” Sharon gave herself a vantage point—feeling anxious is not the same as being worthless.
Teachers of meditation often use the image of the sky to illustrate how thoughts, like clouds, come in and out of our mind. The sky is always there, even when dark clouds momentarily obscure the sky. In another moment, the sky might be a brilliant blue with white downy clouds moving slowly or swiftly across its surface. We use these images to show that clouds come and go changeably, just like our thoughts, but mind and sky always remain. Sitting in meditation, we witness the changes of thought and feeling but don’t partake in them, just as the sky is unchanged by the clouds.
One of the exercises used in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is that of standing behind a waterfall. Standing behind the rushing water and watching it without getting swept away by the torrent gives us a ledge to stand on, just as meditation gives us the perspective to look at our thoughts. We don’t have to believe everything we think, and we don’t have to be deluged by ruminations arising from anxiety or depression.