AWARENESS OF THOUGHTS AND CORE BELIEFS
PDF text downloadable here Advanced Mindfulness Session 2
Today we will review some of the information I gave in the Introduction to Mindfulness course on bringing mindfulness to our thoughts and I will introduce the concept of core beliefs and how we can use our meditation practice to help us uncover our core beliefs about ourselves, and free ourselves from their grip, so we can live a life with more choice and flexibility.
Awareness of thoughts – Review
Often new meditators are shocked to realise how wild their minds are, and how difficult they are to control.
In meditation, we often use the image of the waterfall to describe this constant stream of thoughts that happens in our mind. The goal of meditation is not to stop the thoughts or get rid of them, but rather to develop a different relationship with them by becoming aware of them: the idea is to step behind the waterfall, and watch the thoughts from a distance, so we are no longer caught or lost in them.
Our unnoticed thoughts are very powerful, like little dictators in our mind “do this, do that, go here, go there”. We tend to spend a large amount of time in a kind of mental home video that involves all of our concerns about ourselves, what is happening to me, how others are treating me, what I need to get done etc…. Our thoughts are incessant and somewhat repetitive: apparently, we have 6000 thoughts a day and 95% of them we had the day before! The other key feature of our thoughts is that they often make us miserable due to our negativity bias. Evolution has conditioned us to be vigilant about threats, so we tend to have a lot of thoughts in the category of worry, anxiety about what is about to happen that perpetuate an atmosphere of fear and negativity.
So the thoughts that move through us create a real physical and emotional experience, a real inner atmosphere. You might like to ask yourself what kind of thoughts are regularly populating my mind, do they generate a sense of care, contentment, joy, connection or do they bring up a sense of fear, discontent and separation?
Modern neuroscience has now shown that neurons that fire together wire together, in other words, whatever a person most frequently thinks of, that will become the inclination of their mind.
Also our thinking perpetuates our emotional states. While it takes only one and a half minute for an emotion to move through us, our incessant thinking continues to fuel the emotion and to lock it in for a long time. For example, if we are angry against someone, we keep rehashing in our mind all our grudges against that person, which fuels our anger.
While we would not have been able to survive as a race without thinking, our thoughts don’t guide us well when they are in charge: they are a representation of the reality that can be more or less accurate, but is no closer a representation of reality than a photo of a tree would be of a real living tree.
So, for all those reasons, we benefit greatly from practicing mindfulness of thoughts, to free ourselves from their dictatorship.
How to practice mindfulness of thoughts
Mindfulness of thoughts is not about stopping our thoughts, since that would be impossible. The key is instead to recognise our thoughts, accept that we have thoughts without judging ourselves for it, and stop identifying with them or believing in them. The moment we are recognising and waking up out of a thought is a pivotal moment in this training, it is full of potential.
So the first step is recognition, the first wing of mindfulness. For this, it can be very powerful to name our thoughts, as in the moment of naming, you are no longer caught inside them, your thoughts lose power over you. You can simply mentally whisper “thinking, thinking” or you may be more specific and name the type of thought like “planning”, “worrying”, “criticising”.
The naming helps us to step behind the waterfall of our thoughts.
The second step is to bring in the second wing of awareness, allowing. It begins with openness, opening to the thought. We bring an attitude of friendliness and loving presence to our thoughts, instead of judging ourselves for having that thought, as this would create more thinking and contraction.
It is very helpful, in the moments after recognising the thought, to pause and to sense that we can actually reconnect with what’s here. That reconnection comes when there is no added judgment, just kindness, the heart is open. We notice the thought, we pause, and slowly we relax back to what’s here, the sensations of the body or the movement of the breath, the sounds in the room. Taking our time to reconnect and come back. Resting in the present moment.
At this moment of coming back, it can be very powerful to deepen your practice by noticing the difference between being caught in a thought, and being open to the aliveness of the present moment. Sensing the difference between the virtual reality created by our thoughts, and the reality of the present living moment. This is where we will find real peace and freedom.
There are a couple of images that can be helpful to understand that thoughts have no substance, no solidity:
The first image is to see the thoughts as clouds or bubbles passing in the big sky of the mind. When we realise that we have been thinking, we can touch the thought lightly and let it dissolve back into the vast blue sky, like touching a bubble with a feather.
The second image is seeing the thoughts as dreams. We can choose to wake up and re-enter the present moment, where things are alive and vivid.
The ongoing practice of waking up from our thoughts takes a real commitment as they keep coming back. So we keep asking ourselves the question “do I want to be lost in thoughts or do I want to be free?”
One of the biggest challenges in working with thoughts is when they are emotionally charged. These thoughts are particularly sticky, we will notice them, we might be able to open out of them, and they will come back, again and again. They happen because we all have core beliefs, often subconscious, that we have formed during early childhood experiences.
When we get so identified with our thought that we can no longer sense the witnessing presence, it is a sign that there is a core belief underneath, some way that we have made sense of reality and who we are. And that is feeding our thoughts.
The problem with our core beliefs is that we believe they are right.
It’s part of our evolution to construct beliefs and a representation of the world and then to filter our reality through that. We all do that.
Our survival brain, the limbic system, is about protecting us, and the survival strategies of our ancestors are still imprinted in our nervous system, so we have developed a negativity bias and we encode experiences of endangerment. So our core beliefs about ourselves and the world come from our earliest hurts and fears and also from our cultural and familial background. We developed them to protect ourselves. Although it is from the past it feels totally current, we are totally identified with them and we are not conscious that we have these beliefs. And the behaviours that come out of these beliefs end up getting the responses that reaffirm them: it’s a positive feedback loop.
For example, if a child is repetitively ignored by his mum who is too busy working and socialising, and the only time she pays attention to him is when he comes first in something at school or at sporting events, he might develop a belief that he has to be the best in order to matter.
Inventory of common unhealthy core beliefs
The more you are mindful of your beliefs, the less force they will exert on your psyche. A skilful way of strengthening this mindfulness is to create an inventory of your strongly held beliefs. Take some time to reflect on your limiting, fear-based beliefs and write them down. Perhaps some of the following examples will feel familiar:
- I need to work hard for approval or love.
- I am not worthy of being loved; I don’t deserve to be happy.
- Anyone I get close to will hurt me.
- I will hurt anyone I love.
- I need to be different (more attractive, intelligent, confident, successful) if I am to be loved or loving, happy, or at peace.
- Other people don’t understand or appreciate me.
- I am invisible to others.
- I am special, smarter, better than others.
- It is dangerous to appear weak or needy.
- I can’t trust anyone not to take advantage of me.
- If I don’t “get even” others will continue to hurt me.
- I am fundamentally flawed.
- I am a failure; I will fail at anything I do.
- God (life, other people) has betrayed me.
Identifying our core beliefs
The entry to our core beliefs is wherever we get stuck. We might have a sense of dissatisfaction, restlessness, anxiety, sense of not being at home or at ease in our life… It could be vague or we might be in the middle of a major crisis or challenge.
We start by bringing our attention to our thoughts and feelings about the situation where we feel stuck. We notice the thoughts and feelings and then we come back into the body, if we don’t come into our body, we cannot dissolve the identification that keeps us trapped. We have to sense how the beliefs live in the body to free ourselves. “Our issues are in our tissues”.
The invitation is to come home into presence right here, and to trust that this moment, this part of your life right now contains all the information you need to unravel, to undo your core beliefs, exactly your life right now. For some of you there might be deep emotional pain, for others it might be more subtle, a sense of dissatisfaction or restlessness, “I’m not there yet”. To the degree that there is a sense of not being at home in your life, that’s the place to bring your attention to.
Questioning our core beliefs using the RAIN practice
Typically we go through life as if we’re looking outward, either looking at the world out there or looking at the movie in our minds (our mental home video). With this practice it’s as if we were doing a U-turn, we shift our attention from an outward fixation – our judgements about another person, our thoughts, our stories about what is going on – to the real living experience in our body, to what’s actually going on here, our lived experience in this moment. It guides us to rest in a quality of presence that is freeing us from our mental prison.
Image of a circle with a line going through it: above the line is everything we are conscious of, and below the line is everything outside our conscious awareness (beliefs, aversions, conditioning). When we live below the line, it is like being in a dream, Tara Brach calls it being in trance. Living above the line is living in presence, being completely aware of our inner and outer worlds.
When we’re in trance, we usually feel separate or alone, threatened, hardened, caught up in emotions and reactive to experiences.
When we live in presence, we feel awake, open, and tender, we are in contact with our emotions and responsive to experiences.
This practice enables us to do the U-turn, and to bring mindfulness and compassion to our difficult emotions and self-limiting beliefs.
It follows the 4 steps of RAIN :
The first two steps are the two wings of mindfulness, that you are well familiar with (recognise and allow).
- Recognise what is going on, what emotion is triggered for you in the place where you feel stuck, answering the question : What is happening in me right now?
- Allow the emotion to be here, making space for it, noticing any reactivity and making space for this too (instead of our habitual resistance to difficult emotions, attempts at ignoring or avoiding, or feeling overwhelmed), answering the question : Can I be with this? Can I let this be?
- Investigate: This phase uses gentle questioning to bring an interested and kind attention to our core beliefs. When we investigate, it is important to go back to our somatic, bodily awareness. Instead of thinking about what’s going on, we need to keep bringing our attention back to our body, directly contacting the felt sense and sensations of our most vulnerable place, asking “where am I feeling this?”.
Some of the following questions may be helpful: “What are you believing?”, “is it true?”, “When you are believing this, how does it feel in your body?”, “What stops you from letting go of this belief ?”, “How does it affect your life to be living with this belief”, “What’s happening in you right now? what do you notice? What emotions are present?”
Compassion will arise when we have contacted our place of deepest vulnerability.
- Nurture: Once we are fully present to our place of vulnerability, we can listen for what that place truly needs to begin healing. Sensing what it’s like to live with that belief and asking yourself the question “What does this place most need?”. It’s an invitation to inhabit your wisest, kindest self, and sense what expression of care most resonates. As you sense what is needed, what is your natural response? “What do you want to offer most?” “what message of comfort do you need to hear?”
- Then asking yourself: “What would my life be like without this belief?”, “How would my body feel without this belief?” “Who would I be if I did not believe this?” (usually sense of freedom, lightness, hope, don’t know, openness). Resting in the open tender presence that has arisen. we rest in this awareness, focussing on the qualities of openness, tenderness and wakefulness that have emerged.
A few closing comments on this practice: It is not enough to practice it once, it is not a one shot. As we keep encountering the same patterns, we become more and more skilled at identifying them, we get more and more recognition that we are not the victim, or the fearful self, or the wanting self, angry self, but that we are that presence that is holding our experience with kindness. Over time, that shift happens. This is what is possible.
“Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open
Move outside the tangle of fearful thinking
Live in silence, slow down and down in always widening rings of being
“Our beliefs create our thoughts. And our thoughts create our feelings.
And the thoughts and feelings create our behaviour.
And our behaviour creates our destiny”
Mindful pause, settling the body and mind (5 min)
Awareness of thoughts and core beliefs (18 min)
RAIN practice with core beliefs (23 min)
For your home practice this week, I invite you to practice awareness of your thoughts and core beliefs, and start adding yoru own core beliefs to the inventory of core beliefs.
During the course of the day, remember to pause and ask yourself: “Where is my attention right now? am I fully present or am I lost in thoughts?”.
Questions for journaling
What story do you believe about yourself or others that keeps you from experiencing well-being and joy?
When you think of that story being true, how do you experience it in your body, heart and mind?
Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you took it just as a story, didn’t believe it, and could let it go. How does it feel in your body, heart and mind when you do that?
To identify your core beliefs, start by paying attention to your inner self-talk, the words or expression of language you used, the following can be indicative of a core belief (source Authentic Women Empowerment Programme, Emilie Perrot):
- All or nothing thinking, expressing things in black and white terms: for example, you make one mistake at something and you say that you are bad at it
- Over generalisation: thinking in absolutes, watch out for the words “always” “never” “nobody” “everyone”
- Should statements and must statements : judgmental and unforgiving expectations of yourself and others
- Blaming yourself or others for the problems in your life (victim mentality): “he makes me feel unhappy”
- Discounting the positive and focussing on the negative
- Labelling yourself or others