Is it productive? A meditation practice for when thoughts produce fear

Breast cancer in 2015 changed the way my brain worked, and it changed the way I work with clients. I tried to think my way through decisions about treatments and lifestyle and what makes life rich, full and meaningful, and I found that I could not find peace through my thinking, planning, judging brain. I still needed it for some tasks in life, and it worked well enough for those. But for these issues of the heart and soul, it did not work. Not only did it not work, but it actually had a destructive effect. In the absence of new data to take into account, my rational brain spun in deepening spirals that took me farther from light and down into despair.

Fast forward, I’m almost a year out from my final surgery. I’ve worked with my brain space a lot, and it has changed how I coach my clients. I resumed my own meditation practice in the fall of 2015 and began to teach meditation again in late spring of this year. I’ve now brought meditation tools and tips into many of my coaching sessions. In light of recent U.S. election events, it seemed timely to offer the following small, simple meditation tool for those who wish to stop the anxiety that arises from repetitive, traumatizing trains of thoughts.

Is it Productive? 

If you’ve never meditated or only just begun, it can feel nearly impossible to stop the stream of thoughts about things, even when that stream of thoughts feels destructive. Our brains are wired to keep us alert to danger, so even if that danger is primarily in our thoughts, we will likely have a hard time shifting focus if we perceive danger there. Some of us can close the computer, turn off the radio and TV and walk away for a while. Some of us have a harder time. Trauma in our backgrounds can make this even more difficult to do.

When we sit in meditation (or use moving meditation, as in yoga, tai chi or even mindful walking), we begin to notice our thoughts and develop a little distance from them. Rather than being consumed by our thoughts, we begin to recognize that they move by as if they were scenes on a movie screen. At some point, we realize that the observer self is actually rather peaceful and calm.

In meditation, we practice two things quite a bit:

1) We practice focus. This is very much like going to the gym and lifting weights. By practicing, we develop the “muscle” of focus. At first, it can seem like we will never be able to focus, but over time, we gain greater ability to focus on what we wish to focus on. It can be the breath, body sensation, a sound, an image. Eventually, we gain some ability to shift over to this observer mind and to notice what we are trying to notice, rather than everything else.

2) We practice equanimity. Equanimity means mental calmness. We don’t react, judge or attach to what we’re noticing. We notice what we’re focusing on without harsh judgment of whether we’re focusing well or not. We cultivate curiosity and playfulness.

So here’s where the question, “Is it productive?” comes in. After a while, I begin to have some choices about what part of my brain I’m engaging. When I have a logical decision to make (like the one we engaged with in order to decide on a new heating system for our home), I can make spreadsheets, ponder pros and cons, look at bottom line data in order to make decisions. I can calculate, strategize and plan. Then, when I want to disconnect from my rational mind, I have cultivated some tools of focus and equanimity to help me do so. How, then, do I know which one to engage?

I ask myself (and my clients), “Is it productive?”

Here are some examples:

  • The internal dialogue you hear says that you are not worthy of your space on the planet and haunts you with recrimination for all your past failures.
  • Your boss has been very quiet lately, and you fear that he/she is unhappy with you. You obsess about what you may have done to displease them.
  • The fatigue you’ve been feeling lately is causing you anxiety. Is it a serious illness? Maybe you have a serious illness, and now you’re afraid it may be progressing. This unwanted thought intrudes into your daily activities.
  • Societal events have taken a turn you didn’t expect or want. You churn with fear for what might happen to your neighbors, your planet, your children. You can’t sleep, and you feel your blood pressure rising.

What does “productive” mean? For me, that means that my train of thought leads to positive, rather than destructive, action and states of mind. In all of the examples above, the repetitive thoughts about these things causes stress hormones to rise, disrupts the ability to sleep or engage in good self-care, and diverts energy from the very actions that might change the situations that trouble me. They are not productive.

When I ask myself, “Is it productive? Is it leading me to positive action and healthy states of mind?” and I come up with a “no,” I take that as a cue to shift my focus to present-moment awareness. I return to breath. I notice that I’m doing dishes, driving, sitting with my family members. Perhaps I need to jot down some of my troubling thoughts because they are bringing up some important things to consider for future action. Fine. I jot them down so I can stop obsessing about them and fearing that I will forget an important point. Then I return to present-moment awareness.

In light of election events this past week, many people are troubled. They have fears that are arguably not unfounded. However, if the fears have become intrusive and destructive to mental and physical health, it may be time to ask, “Is it productive?” and shift awareness.  There are people counting on us to do the work of kindness and justice in the world, and we will need all of our available energy for that purpose.