Summary: Eveline thinks about our thinking. And about Winnie the Pooh. That sounds peculiar, but this blog will explain the link (actually, the lack of link) between the two. Why we should bear in mind that we can learn a lot from the mind of this bear. Part 6 in a series about Mindfulness.
Bear in Mind: the (few) thoughts of Winnie the Pooh
This blog is a follow up on my earlier post “Stress – are we still cavemen, more or less?”
A few years ago, a dear friend sent me a picture of Winnie the Pooh and his little friend Piglet, having the following dialogue.
“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.
I love this picture. Primarily because it is a crash course in positivity and makes me smile, every time I see it. It is only now that I understand Pooh is, apart from an optimistic fellow, also a very mindful bear. He is not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. Today is his favorite day. Just another way of saying: It is always Now, let’s enjoy it.
A few months ago, when I just started the mindfulness training, one of my colleagues gave me a book. The Tao of Pooh, it is called, written by Benjamin Hoff. Hoff explains the principles of Taoism with help of the mindset of Winnie. Taoism is about living by The Way, which means: not going against the nature of things. Effortless action, so to say. Apparently our friend Winnie is pretty good at it.
You might remember the stories about Pooh from your childhood. He’s a cute little bear, living in the Hundred Acre Wood, wearing a red crop top (or maybe it was just a regular t-shirt, but his insatiable appetite for honey makes it look like it was washed too hot). His friends all have different traits, being typical stereotypes: pessimistic Eeyore, hyperactive Tigger, chronically scared Piglet and control freak Rabbit. The latter pretending to be the smartest kid on the block.
“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
Wow – who’s being clever now?, I think when reading this in the book. Pooh hereby puts forth that knowledge does not necessarily lead to wisdom. We can be very smart and think as much as we want, but how often does it really bring us understanding? Of course, our brain is a wonderful tool – as long as it’s used properly. When building an IKEA bed, making a grocery list, or solving mathematical problems. But our mind is also engaged in a lot of useless thinking. Not seldom we are trapped in thoughts that are not helping us at all.
Looking through photo albums of my childhood, my dad once pointed at my face on one of the pictures. I was only a few years old, but I had quite a serious gaze. “I always wondered what you were thinking,” he said. “You seemed to be in your own head a lot.” Recently, after yoga class, my yoga teacher came for a chat. “How are you?” she asked, while I was tying my laces. “Always when I watch you enter the building, it seems to me that you’re in your head a lot.” Apparently I am no Winnie the Pooh. Pooh is “a bear of very little brain”, according to himself. You can call him simpleminded, naive or not too bright, but he sure is capable of little thinking. Most of us, to the contrary, are not.
Sometimes you see “weird” people on the street talking and muttering to themselves. Call them crazy, but it’s “not much different from what you and other “normal” people do, except that you don’t do it out loud,” Eckhart Tolle explains in The Power of Now. We all have a voice in our head, that is constantly speculating, judging, worrying, liking, disliking, and so forth. When doing research, I read that we are having between 12.000 to 80.000 thoughts a day. Experts come up with different amounts, but even the lowest number implies 500 thoughts per hour. That is a lot.
Your number of daily thoughts depends on “how deep a thinker you are”, so Winnie and I will probably be in the opposite tails of the normal distribution. Even more striking: up to 95% of your thoughts are repeated daily. That means there’s not much new under the sun. We go around in the same circles again and again. Remember I wrote about our automatic pilot earlier? It’s just like that. Therefore, fresh and bright insights usually do not result from thinking.
Don’t get me wrong: just having thoughts is fine, as long as they appear and vanish without doing any harm. Problems arise as soon as we start to identify with them. When we allow ourselves to believe that all of our thoughts are true. When we think our thoughts are us. That’s undesirable, especially because there is a lot of pessimistic thinking going on. It is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of our thoughts are negative. On a Monday morning before our first coffee, most of us will disagree with Pooh about this being our favorite day.
It is important to realize that our thoughts are not necessarily true. Obviously, some are facts. If you think the grass is green, you’re probably right. But to be fair, all our thoughts are subjective. Why? Because you’re the only one having them. Your thoughts only appear to you, in your own internal world. They are mental events, that do not exist outside of your awareness. The reason our thoughts do feel real is because of the attention we give them. We fuel them with our interest. If we attach to a thought, it will stick around. If we don’t engage with it, it will eventually go away.
Mindfulness is not about getting an empty mind. Nor is it about stopping the thinking altogether. We only try to keep some distance between ourselves and whatever we think, our mindfulness teacher explains in the meeting. You become aware of your thoughts and observe them. Thereby, you no longer fuel the thoughts and you might even experience some stillness. At first, it will be only for a few seconds. But when you train the mind on a regular basis, the relationship with your thoughts will eventually change. At least, that’s the hope.
I don’t think Winnie would like this blog. It’s full of long sentences and complicated reasoning. As I get to know him a little better by reading The Tao of Pooh, he is more about enjoying the simple things in life. Can you blame him? By the way: he is mostly right, I think when reading another quote. “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?” Again: who’s being clever now?
Watching your thoughts and let them pass. Sounds vague? I like the metaphor used by Headspace (it has a nice animation video about it):
Imagine yourself sitting by the side of a busy road. The passing cars represent your thoughts. You sit there and watch them, some driving fast, some passing slow. Sounds easy, but you probably get restless because of the moving traffic. Try not to attend to your thinking. Remember you only need to sit there, by the side of the road. Watching your thoughts and let them pass.
The Tao of Pooh; Benjamin Hoff
The Power of Now; Eckhart Tolle