In a previous Thought Bite, I mentioned that, in the past, when a train of thought entered my mind that I knew was going to lead into pain and confusion, my habit was to stick with that train to its end. In most cases, doing so resulted in suffering.
More recently I’ve learned that I don’t have to stick to such negative thought trains; that I can get off and board another train. Doing so has saved me from a huge amount of unnecessary self-created angst.
One might ask: “How do I get off that train?” It’s a good question.
A physical train is boarded using the feet, and the feet are used to walk off the train. On the other hand, a train of thought is boarded by paying attention to the sequence of thoughts, and so disembarking from a train of thought requires removing the attention from those thoughts and placing it elsewhere.
But how to do that?
Human beings have the power to consciously direct our awareness to where we choose. This is the essence of Pratyāhara, the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. In pratyāhara, I withdraw my attention from where my unconscious habits place it (generally in objects of the senses) and direct it where I choose; such as on the sensation of the breath. This same ability to direct the awareness can be used to change mental trains.
So, rather than sticking with a negative thought sequence, I can move my awareness to the moment-to-moment sensation of the breath at the base of the nostrils. Doing so has a double benefit: I’m no longer aware of the troublesome thought sequence, and, because feeling the flow of the breath at the base of the nostrils is inherently relaxing, I’m enjoying a moment of peace.
The trick is to keep my awareness at the nostrils long enough for the negative thought train to pass.
There are other places to which the attention can be moved. Psychologist Richard D. Carson suggests being aware of the sensation of the skin that surrounds your entire body. When I do this, it strongly brings my attention into my body in the present moment.
Body and breath awareness are excellent places to which to move the attention to get off a negative thought train because both of these focuses allow being aware of life in the moment and they are easy places to rest the awareness.