Mindfulness helps us to become aware of our feelings and thoughts, and how they influence both our behaviour and our perception of the world.
The practice can help us to uncover the thinking errors and traps that our minds can fall into, unless we are alert.
It is important to be aware of these thinking traps in order to allow mindfulness to fully develop.
Mindfulness meditation also help us to become more aware of these thinking errors.
When we are able to identify them, it means that they become less frequent, this then enables our level of mindfulness to increase.
Cognitive distortions, as these thinking errors are called, are common. We all fall prey to them, and they have been described in many areas of human activity.
The most frequent setting in which they are seen as being problematic, is that of mental health. Aaron Beck famously described many of them in his book on cognitive therapy for depression.
If our minds are full of thoughts that have been triggered by these traps we will get stuck in our past or future, and we will not be able to be fully present in the here and now.
The commonest of these errors are otlined below.
1. Tunnel vision.
This is one such thinking trap that we all fall into from time to time. It can be a very helpful way of thinking in an emergency or crisis. In a life threatening situation, being able to focus on what is necessary in order for us to stay alive and not to be distracted by unimportant details is of clear benefit.
If we are working towards an important goal, this can be a really helpful, as it is a way of working and seeing the world that will help us achieve our aims. However, should we use this thinking style in other situations it can cause problems. New possibilites or alternative options become unavailable for consideration. We only see the narrow strip that lies imediately in front of us.
This limits our ablity to become involved in future planning, especially when we develop the view that we can only be happy when some other condition is met.
– New boyfriend.
– New job.
We can also become stuck in the past by using tunnel vision. If I had only got that job then all would be different, my life would be perfect. Such psychic archaeology allows our past to dominate our present, and can lead to depression and disatisfaction with life. It will also disempower us from taking an active role in planning our lives.
2. Selective attention.
Here we only attend to the information that supports our existing prejudices and opinions. We become blind to new facts and are unable to adjust our thought processes to different ways of responding. We seek to justify our decisions based on similar past experiences, or on the behaviour of other people that seems to back up our decision or world view.
Stereotyping relies on this way of seeing and is a source of significant misconceptions about the rest of the world.
Going along with the crowd. They say that birds of a feather flock together and that fools seldom differ. When we adopt a way of thinking that is not really our own in order to fit in with other people, or perhaps because we fear looking stupid, or becoming unpopular, then we have fallen into this trap.
The folk story of the lazy tailors and the Emperor’s new clothes is a good example of this cognitive error. Everyone is far too afraid to say that they were unable to see the emperor’s clothes, and it fell to a young child to point out that he was completely naked.
It can feel rude or even wrong to question others when they say something, and we often allow comments that we disagree with to pass. This can lead to major difficulties for society.
For evil to triumph all it takes is for good men to say nothing.
4. Good money after bad.
This is the situation when we have spent a lot of effort on something which has only proved to have been time poorly spent. Rather than walk away and do something else, we are tempted to invest more and more of our precious time and resources in a failed project, like a gambler who keeps doubling up when he starts to lose, or even worse when he has started to win.
Sometimes it is sensible to persevere as this gets things finished, but at other times we need to know when to walk away, saving our energy and time for more profitable uses. We don’t leave a new job which is a disaster for us, we keep spending money on renovating an old house when it might be cheaper to demolish it and then to rebuild it.
5. Jumping to conclusions.
Making decisions, or drawing conclusions that are inaccurate, before we have all the relevant information. We see this a lot when we behave automatically in response to a stimulus. We use the brain’s automatic circuits as a kind of shorthand to reach decisions or to respond to events without making sure that the current situation is one which fits this automated behaviour.
We make assumptions about people too quickly based on false premises. We are too ready to use past impressions and experiences to respond to events in the present. The brain has many such automatic response pathways that have survival value, but when we respond with them without thinking first, it can be a recipe for disaster.
6. Catastrophic thinking.
Black and white, all or nothing responses that lead us to assume the worst. We don’t join in something new in case we make a fool of ourselves. We choose not to go to a party in case we don’t know anyone else who might be there.
Worrying that a new mole on our arm might be a malignant melanoma is sensible if it means that we got to the doctor to get it checked, but not if we are so sure it is going to be bad news that we are too afraid to go for the check up in the first place.
The more we assume the worst, the easier it becomes for us to think this way. The brain pathways involved in our behaviours tend to become strengthened by practice.
It is thinking errors like these, and their associated emotional responses, that lead to much unhappiness in life. If we can become more aware of them, it becomes easier to let our minds settle and to react to what is happening in front of us, rather than to what we fear might be happening. It can generate much greater peace of mind.
When we can live without assuming that we already know what is happening in our world we can start to respond to the reality of our lives, rather than to our fears and any emotional preconceptions that we might hold. We can hear what people really say to us rather than what we think they are saying, others’ behaviour is seen as what it is not what we choose to interpret it to mean.
Mindfulness allows us to see these errors before they can cause us problems, decreasing the frequency with which they arise, reducing their grip on our thinking, and allowing us to see more clearly. Our thinking can then become much less mindless. We can empty our heads of all these cognitive errors and our own unfounded fears, meaning that our thinking becomes much more mindful.