I’ve been meditating for many years but there are still days when I feel like it’s something I need to tick off the to-do list. On some days, particularly when I’m in the middle of a big project, it can feel hard to put even 10 minutes aside for meditation practice. The driven voice in my head tries to convince me that this practice of pausing and connecting with presence is a waste of time. It’s a compelling voice, particularly on days when it feels like there are so many urgent things to do. But it’s especially on those days, when I manage to recognize my sabotaging thoughts for what they are, that I benefit the most from meditating.

When I sit to meditate on these days, I immediately notice the tightness in my chest and throat and the underlying agitation of my stress. I notice that my mind is spewing out to-do lists in a way that makes it nearly impossible to resist getting up and just doing it all. However, it’s through making room for meditation that I get to more consciously connect with myself and my state of being, and realize that my sense of urgency and drivenness is actually being fuelled by a physical state of tension and stress. By the end of my meditation session, I feel my chest open up, my breath become more unimpeded, my belly soften, and my whole being settle back into a feeling of calm presence. I’m grateful that I have this practice in my life and that it has taught me how to discern between thoughts that are worth listening to and thoughts that are psychic garbage which need to be discarded.

Meditation has taught me how to relate to my thoughts in a completely revolutionary way. I can’t believe that learning this technique isn’t mandatory from elementary school onward. I often wonder how my early life may have been different with this discerning lens focusing on my inner experience. Through the practice of meditation, I have come to understand that thoughts can be likened to having a radio on in the background of your mind, with some channels that are full of rubbish. When you’re listening to a radio, though, if there’s a channel you don’t like, you can easily change the station. For many of us, when it comes to our thought stream, we sit there tuned in to and immersed in a toxic running commentary, without changing the station.

Until I learned the practice of mindfulness meditation, I was a prisoner of my own thoughts. When you believe that all the thoughts you have are truthful, your possibilities can be very limited. If we take all our thoughts as authorities in regard to any matter, we may become unable to let go of beliefs that could be obstructing our full potential.

As Gandhi stated,

Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.

So, how do you know which thoughts are valuable and which thoughts are to be disregarded? Usually, negative thoughts have a particular power to affect our destiny. Next time you have a thought that is self-critical, judgmental, worrisome, or stressful, take a mindful moment, pause, and ask yourself if this thought is helping you become the person you want to be, and live in the way you want to live. Recognize what emotion is concealed underneath the thought and might be driving that type of thinking. Are you afraid, overwhelmed, stressed, hurt, anxious, ashamed, or angry? By getting to the root of the emotion behind the thought, you can then make wiser decisions regarding how to respond to the trigger of that emotion, instead of staying captive within unproductive thought loops.

Five steps to finding greater emotional freedom through mindfulness

» Notice when you’re having a thought that’s negative or creating emotional discomfort.

» Ask yourself, is this thought moving me towards or away from what I value and how I want to be living?

» If you discover the thought is moving you away from who you want to be and how you want to live in the world, simply let the thought go and disconnect from the toxic radio station that’s sending you unhelpful messages such as these. Realize that this thought is just a thought and not an authoritative statement.

» Take a moment to bring compassion to yourself as you recognize and uncover the underlying emotion that is currently fuelling your negative, unhelpful thought streams.

» Remind yourself that the nature of the mind is to think. It’s constantly producing thoughts, some of which are creative and inspired and others that hold you captive and bring you down. Realize that you don’t have to believe in every thought that enters your mind. Mindfulness, that capacity to be aware of what’s happening from moment to moment, helps you guard your own mind and carefully choose which thoughts you let influence your life and your choices.

Learn the skills of mindfulness by registering for the global mindfulness challenge Mindful in May and help raise money to transform the lives of those in need in developing countries.

Elise Bialylew is a doctor, social entrepreneur, meditation teacher, and the founder of Mindful in May, a global mindfulness campaign that has taught thousands of people around the world to meditate, while raising over $300,000 to build clean water wells in the developing world.
image: Illustration of Office man via Shutterstock