Mindful Thinking and living mindfully are skills you can learn and develop. I consider myself a mindful person. Does that mean I never get upset or react? No. It means I try to override my habitual patterns of reacting and consciously choose my behavior and attitudes. I don’t always succeed. However, I’m a heck of a lot calmer and less emotional and reactive than I used to be! I feel much more in control of myself and my life.
This article can help you become a mindful thinker too. We all like to think that we are open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Certainly, mindfulness and living in the moment are remarkably easy; the hard part is keeping it up over time. Why? Because it’s easy to slip back into old ways of thinking and behaving.
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To be more mindful, you first need to recognize unhelpful ways of thinking.
Mindful Thinking Exercise: Thinking in the right direction
Get yourself a pen and a piece of paper. Read all the instructions before writing anything down. At the end of this exercise, you will give yourself a score on how well you did.
1. First, write your first name in the upper left corner of this page.
2. Now write your last name in the upper right corner of this page.
3. If your last name begins with a letter from A to M, circle your first name.
4. If your last name begins with a letter from N to Z, circle your last name.
5. Write today’s date underneath your first name.
6. Write your birthday under your second name.
7. If your birthday is in a month from January to June, draw a SINGLE line under your birthday.
8. If your birthday is in a month from July to December, draw a DOUBLE line under your birthday.
If there is any writing on the page before you read all the instructions, give yourself a ZERO! Go back and read the instructions at the top of the page telling you to read all the instructions before writing anything down.
What Is Mindful?
Focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, especially as part of a therapeutic or meditative technique.
For example, when you eat a favorite food, take the time to smell, taste, and truly enjoy it. Live in the moment. Try to intentionally bring an open, accepting, and discerning attention to everything you do. Find joy in simple pleasures.
Examples of Being Mindful?
Next time you experience an emotion – for example, anger, joy, guilt, pride – try to identify all the different parts of it.
You can start by being aware of any physical signs or sensations: where does the feeling seem to be located? Increased heart rate, a hot flush, sweating, tension in muscles, knots in your stomach, a shiver; these changes intensify the emotion. With a little practice, you can learn to be aware of these signs.
Next, observe your thoughts. When you are feeling guilty, for example, what are you thinking? When you are feeling grateful, what are your thoughts?
Finally, be aware of how you behave. What don’t you do? What do you do? And, what actions do you take?
Just doing this exercise in itself is being mindful. Not only does it help you be more aware of your emotions, but it can also help you to see how the different parts of emotions are connected, how they interact and help you understand how they affect you.
The more you are aware of your emotions, the more you can move out of mind traps: those responses that have become a habit and a default position.
What Is Mindful Thinking? Or, Mindful Thinking Meaning
“Begin your mindful meditation practice. Find a quiet place, and then focus your mind on the present moment. Don’t think of other things, but sit in silence. Be aware of your thoughts, but be willing to release them and stop thinking about or focusing on them. Begin with ten minutes and meditate daily.”
Ten minutes? Seriously?
If you’ve ever tried to meditate you might feel that you’ll be no good at mindfulness because you cannot “empty” your mind. It feels as though your mind is jumping all over the place, and you are constantly having to refocus. Your mind can behave like a new puppy. You tell your puppy to sit and stay, but your puppy immediately runs away, rummages through the kitchen bin, chews up your new shoes, and wees on the carpet.
Your mind is its entity. It cannot be easily controlled. It’s like television that keeps hopping about or getting stuck between channels. You can’t find the remote control so, like the TV channel, your mind keeps playing the same scenes over and over again or spends a short time on one thing before jumping to another issue.
If you can focus your mind, then you’ve found the remote control, and trained the puppy.
Your mind will wander, however. That’s its nature. It will fall into traps that take it from being completely in the present; mind traps lure you into the future or trap you in the past.
“What a liberation to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that”. – Eckhart Tolle
You’ve already read previously in this article that just being aware of mind traps is being mindful. The next step is to break free from mind traps. Try to be patient through this process and not judge yourself if you find mind traps arising.
Talking recently to a friend about mindfulness, she told me “I’ve learned to accept that there are occasions when my mind is more susceptible to wandering or getting trapped compared to others. On those occasions, when I catch my mind wandering, I simply bring it back to what’s happening now. I realize that these are the occasions when I have the opportunity to practice pausing and being present amidst what’s going on around me.”
“Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows fall behind you.” Maori proverb
Take this Mindfulness Quiz to determine how mindful you are: Here
Mindful Thinking Definition:
If you Google the word “mindfulness or mindful” you’ll get gazillions of different articles, definitions, flavors, and varieties. The truth is there is no single, fixed universal definition. Mindfulness is an umbrella term that encompasses and links various key ideas, concepts, and mindful practices.
Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It’s training our brain to pay attention to the present moment and focus. It’s the art of learning to direct your attention to what is happening in your present experience, including your mind, body, and environment without being judgemental.
Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a quality that you develop through continuous practice. Over time, it becomes a way of being and part of the fabric of who you are. Repetitively and consistently thinking and behaving mindfully alters your brain’s form and function.
Our Brain Is Wired to Be Efficient – Not Mindful
Our brain is very efficient. Whenever possible, it minimizes the effort and energy required to do something by delegating control to our subconscious. Everything from speaking to driving can be managed by highly automated routines largely inaccessible to your conscious mind. Some routines are instinctual. Some are learned.
Mindfulness Changes Your Brain
Thinking mindfully repeatedly activates the frontal lobe. Because of neuroplasticity, mindfulness develops frontal lobe connections to and control mechanisms over the limbic system. With repetition, this thinking pattern can become the go-to default for navigating life situations rather than the emotional brain.
Mindful Thinking Activities:
A beginner’s mind is an aspect of the mind that’s open to seeing from a fresh perspective. Meeting anxiety in this way, with curiosity, can play an extremely important role in transforming your experience. When you’re willing to adopt another point of view, new possibilities arise, and this can help you challenge habitual anxious thoughts and feelings.
Patience is a quality that supports perseverance and fortitude when feelings of anxiety are challenging. And, patience also offers a broader perspective, allowing you to see that moments of anxiousness will pass in time.
Acknowledgment is the quality of meeting your experience as it is. For example, rather than trying to accept or be at peace with anxiety, you meet it and experience it as they are. You can acknowledge that anxiety is present and how much you don’t like it, even as you apply patience and see anxiety as your current weather system, knowing it will pass.
Nonjudgment means experiencing the present moment without the filters of evaluation. Amid anxiety, it can be all too easy to experience a secondary layer of judgment on top of the already uncomfortable anxious feelings. Stepping out of a judgmental mindset allows you to see more clearly. When you let go of evaluations, many sources of anxiety simply fade away. When you feel anxiety, adopting a non-judgmental stance can reset your mind into a more balanced state.
Non striving is the quality of being willing to meet any experience as it is, without trying to change it. With Nonstriving, you understand the importance of being with things as they are—being with your experience without clinging to or rejecting what’s there. (Note that Non-striving relates to your present-moment experiences during meditation and doesn’t in any way negate the value of setting a wise intention to grow, learn, and change your relationship to anxiety.)
Amid strong anxiety, the first response is often to flee or get out of the situation. If you can pause and be with your experience without exerting any force against it, you gain the opportunity to know your experience more clearly and choose your response. You can also become less fearful of the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany anxiety.
Mindful Thinking Example:
Let’s take the example of someone who teaches academic study skills. When he/she runs classes on essay writing, they use this one exercise to emphasize the need to read and answer the actual question. Too often, students answer what they assume is the question asked rather than what the question asked.
Why does this happen? It would appear that their minds are on automatic pilot. In the same way that optical illusions work, your brain reverts to familiar ways of “seeing”. When it assumes it knows what it’s seeing, or being asked to do, it stops looking for further possibilities.
What’s the science behind all this?
Well, the core components of the brain are neurons; cells in the nervous system that process and transmit information. Neurons connect to form neural pathways and networks. This means that when you think or do something, your brain activates these neural pathways. Each time you think or behave in a particular way, the more likely your brain will use those neural pathways. These pathways become stronger and stronger. Just like walking through a field of long grass, the more often the path is trodden, the more established the path becomes.
Eventually, the pathways become so established that they become habits; habitual ways of doing or thinking. You no longer have to think about what you’re doing. You do it mindlessly.
Just like looking both ways before crossing the street; you’ve done it so often that you don’t even have to think about it.
Of course, this is helpful – a shortcut to having to think things through every time. Think of the things you do daily that your brain and body are so used to that they don’t even have to think about them – walking, talking, eating, brushing your teeth, driving, texting, etc.
When your brain is exposed to behavior or thought patterns that it perceives as repeated and unvarying, if your brain is not having to process new information, it reverts to automatic pilot. And because our brains function to a large extent outside your awareness, just like breathing, you’re not even aware of how automatic your ways of thinking are.
You become mindless instead of mindful. And before you know it you’ve fallen into mind traps – habitual ways of thinking and behaving that, like most traps, are easy to fall into.
Being aware of common mind traps is an important first step to becoming more mindful. You’ll notice that some of these traps lure you into the future and others trap you in the past.
1. Catastrophizing: tormenting yourself with disturbing thoughts about future possibilities and worst-case scenarios.
2. Jumping to conclusions: judging or deciding something before you have all the relevant information or have considered the evidence.
3. Tunnel thinking: Imagine looking down a cardboard tube. What can you see? More importantly, what can’t you see? With tunnel thinking, your mind excludes possibilities and options – hence the tunnel. There’s only one way to go and that is down and out of the tunnel.
4. The confirmation trap: seeking information that supports your existing way of thinking.
5. The conformity trap: falling in with other people’s way of thinking.
6. The sunk costs trap: the time and effort you have already put into a situation and can never get back.
7. The blame trap: placing all responsibility for something that’s gone wrong on someone or something else.
“The present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight, and the present of things future is expectation. … It seems to me that time is nothing else than extension; but an extension of what I am not sure – perhaps of the mind itself.” St Augustine. (Confessions, XI, 20, 26)
Like all traps, mind traps catch you unawares and are difficult to escape from. Much of the time people are mindless; they are unaware when they are in that state of mind because they are “not there” to notice. But once you are aware of them, you’ll see that they are not impossible to escape from. Just being aware of mind traps is mindful. The moment you realize you’ve been trapped by your thoughts; you are free to step out of that trap.
Mindful Thinking Exercises
Mindful Thinking Exercise: Write a thinking diary
One way to start becoming more aware of your thoughts is to write them down. List all the events, big and small, that happened in the last 24 hours; shopping, cooking, traveling to work or taking children to school, reading a story to your child, watching TV, going for an interview, being in a meeting, writing an email, gardening, playing a sport.
Where was your mind? In the present? Or dwelling in the past or fast-forwarding to the future?
Helena kept a thinking diary every day for a week. “I wrote down a variety of things that happened each day. Things like my manager walking past me in the corridor and not acknowledging me (she must be annoyed that I contradicted her in the meeting yesterday). Meeting a friend for coffee (I didn’t take in her news – I was too busy thinking of what I had to do when I got home). Eating a sandwich at my desk while continuing to work (I can’t stop for lunch. I’ve got too much paperwork to catch up on). Running my daughter’s Brownie meeting in the evening (why did I commit to doing this every Tuesday evening?).
Keeping a track of my thoughts helped me identify patterns in my thinking. I was surprised at just how often I was letting events in the past and possibilities about the future intrude on what was happening in the present.”
Writing it all down might seem a bit much, but the process of writing makes the exercise more effective. This is because it raises your awareness twice: before you write, and while you are writing.
Check-in with yourself during the day and ask yourself “Do I know where my mind is?”
You could try this:
Set the alarm on your phone to go off at random intervals several times during the day. Each time the alarm goes off, firstly be aware of and then make a note of what you are thinking and what you were doing when the alarm went off. Was your mind on what you were doing?
Whatever and wherever your thoughts, there’s no need to judge them as good, bad, or wrong; judging your thoughts is another mind trap. Simply be aware of where your mind was at. Developing the ability to be more present with these mind traps is the first step to breaking free from them.
Change your mind
Remember, any thought or action creates a neural pathway in the brain. When you develop a habit of a particular way of thinking, it becomes your default setting. So, the more often you have a specific thought or way of thinking, the more you tread that path, the more likely it is to happen again.
The good news is that by using the same process of repetition, you can let go of mindless ways of thinking and establish helpful, mindful ways of thinking.
At some point, you established a way of thinking and behaving and that way of thinking and behaving became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of the way your brain works. You can make the most of this process to recreate and establish new ways of thinking and behaving in whatever way you choose.
Leopards may not change their spots, but you’re not a leopard, and you can change. You can learn to think in a more open, flexible way. Your mind is up for the challenge!
Change your thinking
We have already seen that by being more aware of events in your day and associated (or dissociated) thoughts and feelings, you can begin to identify the thinking traps that get in the way of being mindful.
There are other techniques for training your brain to think differently and helping you on the path to changing your mindset. Changing things, you can change the way you think. By changing or breaking even small routines, your brain will be exposed to new stimuli and will create new neural pathways to accommodate changes.
Mindful Thinking Exercise: Breaking routines
Try the following experiment: Move the clock to a different place in the room. Or move the teabags, jam, or cereal to a different cupboard in the kitchen. See how often you automatically look for these items in the place they used to be.
Confusing? Frustrating? Yes. But you can adjust. If you stick with it, after only a couple of weeks you will have adjusted to behaving in a new, different way.
Choosing to break a routine way of doing things regularly can be an effective way to kick-start new more helpful ways of thinking. Even small changes can help.
- Walk or drive a new route to work.
- Cook a new recipe or eat a different type of food.
- Take the kids to a different park.
- Read a different newspaper, listen to new music or a different radio station from what you would normally choose.
- Volunteer your time to help people in situations that are completely different from your own.
- Meet new people. New people bring new thoughts, ideas, and perceptions into your life.
- Talk to someone with a different perspective, occupation, background, culture, or religion. This will increase the odds that you’re introduced to new ways of thinking. (The confirmation and conformation traps are evidence that hanging out with like-minded people simply reinforces your thoughts and beliefs.)
- Change your mode of travel – walk instead of cycle. Cycle instead of drive. Or get public transport. Take the stairs instead of the lift.
You have to decide to do things differently to experience different results. Write changes on self-sticking notes and place them on the wall above your desk or on the fridge to remind you to do things differently.
Pushing yourself to embrace new activities and experiences that force you to step outside your comfort zone is a good way to train your brain to think in new ways; to be open to new possibilities. When you think and behave in new, different ways you are embracing another aspect of mindfulness; the beginner’s mind.
“If you want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.” Jim Rohn
Seven stages of change in Mindful Thinking
In this first stage, you are not even aware that you need to or can make any changes to your mindset or behavior.
Identification and contemplation stage.
At this stage, you’ve recognized that things can be different. You are aware that there may be some benefits of changing but are not confident about your ability to change.
This stage may take some time and may involve several different steps such as:
- Looking for signs and evidence that you should make changes (for example, “I worry too much”)
- Weighing up the pros and cons (“It’ll take time and effort but I’ll feel calmer and more in control”)
- Looking for ideas and information about how to behave differently
- Deciding whether the time is right (“Now is the time!”)
- Understanding what you need to do
- Formulating specific, positive goals (“I want to be free from worrying about things I have no control over”)
In the preparation stage, you intend to make some changes, but first, you may be thinking about and looking for signs to confirm that you do need to change your behavior.
If you understand what you need to do and if you can foresee a possible outcome, you are more likely to move on to the next stage and take action. Also, if you feel that making a change matches your needs, abilities, and values, you are more likely to go for a behavior change.
At this stage, you will need to identify what specific aspects of your life/situation you want to address.
Recognizing, for example, that you want to be more mindful is all very well, but you will need to be more precise. Therefore, one of your goals might be to “I want to be free from worrying about things I have no control over” or “I want to be able to focus on one thing at a time – to single task rather than multi-task.”
This is the stage where you put the changes into place. You change one way of thinking and behaving for another.
The action stage requires time and effort, but with good preparation, it can also be an exciting time that results in new ways of thinking and behaving. Depending on the goals and plans you made in the preparation stage, the action stage can occur in small, gradual steps, or it can be a complete life change.
Here, you will be working on keeping up your new ways of thinking and behaving. You will want to avoid old habits and thinking patterns, and you may well be looking for ways to avoid being tempted to revert to mindless thinking.
By this stage, you will have established new ways of thinking and behaving. You will have recognized that former problem behaviors are no longer an option. For example, when you’re making dinner, you’ll stop trying to answer emails or send tweets at the same time. Or perhaps, when your children or partner want to talk to you about something, you’ll give them your full attention.
A successful change in thinking or behavior usually involves moving from one of these seven stages to the next. Each stage is prepared for the next one, so hurrying through or skipping a stage may not be as effective as progressing from one stage to the next.
Progress, change, and relapse.
It’s important to know that with the seven stages of change, there’s the possibility that you will make mistakes and revert to your old way of thinking and behaving. It’s normal, and it’s to be expected. Understanding that setbacks are normal and to be expected will help prevent difficulties from undermining your determination and confidence.
Do not let a relapse make you give up! Instead, try and identify why it happened. What can you learn from that? What will you do differently from now on?
Mindful Thinking Quotes
- “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller
- “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
- “Be happy at the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.” – Mother Teresa
- “Look past your thoughts, so you may drink the pure nectar of This Moment.” – Rumi
- “Every moment is an eminently suitable moment for unlimited profundity–if you allow it to be so.” – Adi Da Samraj
- “The mind is everything. What you think you become.” – Buddha
- “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
- “The future is always beginning now.” – Mark Strand
- “In today’s rush, we all think too much–seek too much–want too much–and forget about the joy of just being.” – Eckhart Tolle
- “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” – William Blake
- “Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.” – Louis L’Amour
- “The real question is not whether life exists after death. The real question is whether you are alive before death.” – Osho
- “With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present to touch the wonders of life that are available at that moment.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
- “Give your attention to the experience of seeing rather than to the object seen and you will find yourself everywhere.” – Rupert Spira
- “Suffering usually relates to wanting things to be different than they are.” – Allan Lokos
- “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl
- “Paradise is not a place; it’s a state of consciousness.” – Sri Chinmoy
- “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” – Buddha
- “Observe the space between your thoughts, then observe the observer.” – Hamilton Boudreaux
- “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
- “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” – Eckhart Tolle
- “As the witnessing presence of Awareness, we stand in the background of experience; as the light of pure Knowing, we stand at its heart.” – Rupert Spira
- “With meditation, you begin to relax in your seat and just watch the movie of life.” – Ken Wilber
- “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Buddha
- “To understand the immeasurable, the mind must be extraordinarily quiet, still.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
- “All that is necessary to awaken to yourself as the radiant emptiness of spirit is to stop seeking something different, and to turn your attention inward to the awake silence that you are.” – Adyashanti
- “He who has freed himself of the disease of ‘tomorrow’ has a chance to attain what he came here for.” – G.I. Gurdjieff
- “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung
- “Watch, witness. Your body is not you; your mind is not you. You are just a pure witness.” – Osho
Mindful Thinking Book
- Permission to Feel – By Marc Brackett • Celadon Books
- Stay Woke (A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us) – By Justin Michael Williams • Sounds True
- The Monkey Mind Meditation Deck (30 Fun Ways for Kids to Chill Out, Tune in, and Open Up) – By Carolyn Kanjuro • Shambhala
- Mindful Movement in Psychotherapy – By Paul Salmon • Guilford Press
- Keep Calm and Log On: Your Handbook for Surviving the Digital Revolution – By Gillian “Gus” Andrews, EdD • The MIT Press
Also Read: How to Set Healthy Boundaries?