As some of you know, in my writing on productivity, I often talk about developing a new relationship with the thoughts and feelings that come up and disrupt our focus as we’re working. Instead of using time and energy pushing those inner experiences away, I suggest that we allow them to be, just as they are, and let them pass away on their own.
When I say this, people sometimes get concerned that, if they take my advice, they’ll become stuck in a repetitive pattern of thinking or feeling. In other words, if they don’t force the thought or feeling away, it will get stronger or stay around longer.
This seems like a common concern, so I think it will be useful to look at it in this piece. I think the most important thing to remember here is the difference between ruminating about an inner experience and simply allowing it. My sense is that people tend to confuse the two — they think I’m asking them to ruminate when all I want them to do is allow.
Rumination is something we’re all painfully familiar with. We have an uncomfortable thought or feeling — worrying about what the boss will think of our work, for instance — and we find ourselves wallowing in the experience, practically savoring it. “Yeah, that’d be terrible if he didn’t like the project,” we think. “Off-the-charts terrible. Super-mega-gonzo-terrible.”
It’s a nasty habit, and it’s no wonder we’re scared of getting stuck in it. Naturally, we tend to assume the only way to stop ourselves from ruminating is to resist the experience — to attack or undermine it with our thoughts.
Maybe, for instance, we’ll try to comfort ourselves by telling ourselves the situation isn’t really so bad. After all, we’re putting a lot of effort into this project, the boss is usually pretty even-tempered, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he got mad.
Unfortunately, these efforts often backfire. Frustratingly, for every argument we come up with against our worry, another one in favor of it tends to pop into our minds. But my work probably isn’t as good this week because I’m getting over a cold, we think. The boss is angrier lately because of that situation with his kids. It’s November and that’s a tough month for everyone.
While this epic cognitive battle is raging, our work isn’t getting done, and running in mental circles can be physically tiring. In a nutshell, I’m saying that, when we resist an experience, the result is often just as painful as what happens when we ruminate.
Allowing Is Like Driving
Allowing, letting your thoughts and emotions pass away, is the opposite of resistance. Here’s an illustration that’s useful for me. Take something in your life that you interact with regularly but don’t pay much attention to. I like to use the road underneath my car while I drive as an example. I don’t usually form opinions of the road as I’m driving over it, and I don’t think about it after I’m done driving on it. I simply let it pass.
Suppose you saw your inner experience like driving down the road — that you didn’t form opinions about your thoughts and feelings, try to argue against them, run away from them, or do anything about them. That you just let them pass by, like the asphalt beneath your car.
Meditation teachers have described this practice in a number of ways. Some call it “becoming unclutched” — releasing your grip on your thoughts and feelings, as if they were balloons and you were letting them float off into the air. Others talk about “stepping out of the stream of thought” — as if you’ve been wading in a stream, and you stepped out of it and let it rush by.
Allowing our inner experience may seem difficult when we first try it, because we’re so afraid of getting stuck in rumination that resistance seems like the only way. But when we get more familiar with it, I think, we find that it’s much easier and relaxing than fighting against ourselves.