The autonomic nervous system in the body is responsible for all the automatic functions of the body such as the beating of the heart and the process of digestion. We don’t have to make these things happen, they just happen automatically and regulate themselves depending on various internal and external factors.
Breathing is another example of an autonomic function. We do not have to remember to breathe. Even if we try to deliberately hold our breath, the autonomic nervous system will do everything it can to force the body to breathe. Despite this ability to override our will, the breath is an example of an autonomic bodily function that we can easily choose to consciously influence. I can, right now, decide to take a deeper breath for example. So how I am breathing right now is an interplay between the automatic systems of the body and my conscious will.
This may be why the breath is so often a focus of meditation and mindfulness. We consciously connect with something that we could affect, but then choose to allow it to continue just as it is. This is the essence of the meditative approach. We become more aware and attentive to whatever is happening but choose not to try and change it; instead we watch, observe, allow and let go.
My initial assumption would be that our thoughts are not autonomic. If there is one area of our experience that relies entirely on our conscious choice and will for it to happen then surely that would be our own thoughts. However, through the practice of mindfulness of thought, my experience is that thoughts are more like the breath.
We can consciously affect our thoughts, easily and instantly, as we can do with the breath. However, most of the time our thoughts just happen without any particular conscious intention or deliberate choice from ourselves, just as the breath continues to happen when we pay it no attention. We can also try to stop thinking, but just as when we try to stop breathing, we will most likely find the thoughts, just like our breath, will keep coming, even against our conscious will. This makes sense if we see our thoughts, like our breath, as an autonomic function that we have some influence over.
So when practising mindfulness of thought, don’t try to stop thinking; don’t even have that as an aim or expectation, and certainly don’t judge the success or otherwise of your mindfulness practice on the basis of how close you get to having no thoughts – if indeed thoughts are autonomic, this would be as sensible an approach to mindfulness as having the aim to stop breathing altogether.
This doesn’t mean that we won’t experience a change in the quality of our thoughts through practising mindfulness. Awareness of anything changes its quality. If we become more aware of how we are walking, talking or breathing, it changes our experience of that activity. So too with our thoughts.
Our breath is a combination of autonomic functioning and our consciousness. We affect our breath depending on how we feel, what we are thinking about and what we choose to do. Our attitude and approach to life impacts upon how we breathe. When we practise mindfulness we are consciously choosing a different attitude and approach and so this will have a different influence upon our breath. The mindful attitude and approach is to allow and observe and not to actively seek to bring about any change; however this is a fundamentally different attitude to that of our ordinary day to day approach, where we are constantly trying in various ways to bring about some influence and control over our lives as we react to events and interact with others. Because the mindful approach is so different, it dramatically changes the influence we have been having over our breath.
Our normal everyday attitude affects our breath. When we are stressed or anxious in anyway that affects the breath. So when we begin a mindfulness practice and become aware of the breath we are choosing to allow the autonomic system to begin to take full control over our breathing. But the breath we initially beome aware of is the breath that has been, and is still for a time, affected by our stresses and anxieties of the day. But if we maintain this new attitude of allowing, observing and letting go, if we continue to choose not to change anything about the breath, this removes the influence of our everday consciousness and allows the autonomic system to regulate the breath without any more interference from our anxiety and stress.
So choosing not to try and change the breath through mindfulness will change the breath, as the breath will be allowed to return to an optimum autonomic breath, free of the influence and affects of our everyday consciousness.
If thoughts are also autonomic then we should experience something similar when practising mindfulness of thoughts. Although our aim is not to change our thoughts in anyway, this mindful approach allows the thoughts to return to their natural autonomic state, free of the influence of our everyday stress and anxiety. The quality of our thoughts will then, eventually change by us deliberately choosing not to try and change them.
This can lead to some interesting realisations about the origin and nature of our thoughts. As we step back and allow our thoughts to arise and flow freely though the mind without any interference from ourselves, we may ponder where these thoughts, that I am not actively engaging in or choosing to create, are coming from?
Whilst in this mindful state of allowing thoughts to pass by, I can consciously create other thoughts. My experience is that there are three types of thoughts: the autonomic thoughts affected negatively by everyday stress; autonomic thoughts unaffected by, and free from negative influence; and my consciously chosen thoughts. These three types of thoughts are quite different in nature, just as the affected and unaffected unconscious breath, and the fully conscious breath are all very different experiences.
So the thoughts we are probably most familiar with are the limited and reactive autonomic thoughts that have been negatively affected by the stresses of life, I willl refer to these as compromised autonomic thoughts. Through mindfulness we can become aware of two other types of thoughts: autonomic thoughts that are not negatively affected by stress, I will call these optimum autonomic thoughts; and consciously created thoughts direct from our awareness, I will label these free thoughts.
Examples of optimum autonomic thoughts would be moments of insight, clarity and intuition when we receive thoughts that we haven’t spent time consciously pondering and thinking through. These thoughts just arrive in our awareness and have the quality of clarity, resolution and insight. If we can free our autonomic thoughts of the compromising negative influence of our anxiety and stress, we open ourselves up to being able to receive optimal autonomic thoughts of insight and intuition. We can trust ourselves to get the right thought at the right time and to receive an appropriate insight or helpful inspiration just when we need it.
Just as we spend most of the day breathing without awareness, relying on autonomic breathing and allowing our everyday stresses to affect the breath, so too, we spend most of the day relying on compromised autonomic thoughts, thoughts without any consciousness, thoughts without consideration or choice; our thoughts are automatic reactions not conscious creations. Just as we may find our breathing has become habitually limited, so too does our thinking.
With mindfulness we can take back ownership and responsibility of our thoughts and start to think creative, empowered and meaningful thoughts, free thoughts, and let go of the lazy, automatic and reactive autonomic thoughts that we have unhelpfully identified ourselves with. These compromised autonomic thoughts are not our true thoughts, our free thoughts, they are not the thoughts of our engaged, aware and conscious self; they are the compromised autonomic thoughts of an automatic system responding as best it can to the myriad of internal and external influences.
To have healthy, optimum, productive, inspiring and genuinely self-created thoughts we need to engage the non-autonomic function of our conscious awareness and we can do that simply and effectively through the practice of mindfulness. This allows compromised autonomic thoughts to become optimal autonomic thoughts and allows us the space to create free thoughts.
With mindful thinking, not only will the quality of our thoughts change, but our sense of ourselves, our identity will change as we experience ourselves to be conscious agents of creation and influence, capable of inspiring free thoughts and of receiving intuitive insight. No longer will we need to experience ourselves and our thoughts as robotic and reactive and at the whim of circumstance.
Take a deep conscious breath, break the autonomic cycle, and start to create.