A friend recently said to me, “I often feel like my thoughts are hammers, and they keep on hammering down on this thing known as my brain.” This is a pretty apt description of how a lot of people feel every day; I’ve certainly experienced it. I’ve written, here and there, about how the brain copes and how to dial down the background level of stress. But an even more fundamental question is how to deal with the negative, or otherwise undesirable, thoughts we have, on a moment-to-moment basis. In other words, when just you and your brain are alone together, how do you get it to quit assaulting you and just let you be?
In principle, the answer is beautifully simple – thoughts don’t have to be believed. You can just acknowledge the ridiculous or negative thoughts that pop into your head, chuckle at them, and then release them. This is the essence of mindfulness.
The problem is that, depending on your outlook or your level of stubbornness, this practice doesn’t always work so easily, at least in the beginning. To help try to figure out how to quell the thoughts that we don’t want to have, I turned to neuroscientist and mindfulness expert, Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, who has done some beautiful work in his lab at Yale on the neural (and behavioral) changes that come from mindfulness practice. Not only does he study it, he’s lived it: He knows firsthand both how challenging it can be to bring attention away from the negative chatter, and, fairly recently, how rewarding it can be when it does work.