“All aboard! The train of thought is leaving the station! All aboard!”
“Where is the train of thought going?” asks a would be passenger standing on the platform.
“I don’t know,” the conductor responds.
“When will the train return to this station?” another curious person asks, but jumps on the train before
hearing the answer.
The conductor shrugs his shoulders and states, “Too hard to tell.”
“Does the train of thought make any stops? What if I want to get off?” another possible passenger
nervously inquires, but joins her fellow traveler in boarding without waiting for the information.
The conductor coyly smiles and answers, “Sure. But when and where the train stops, well, that is up to you.”
What are thoughts? Where do they come from? How do I clear my thoughts and become more focused?
Finally, how can I be the passenger and the conductor of the train of thought, thereby intentionally
creating and enjoying my thought experience instead of getting lost in it?
“What a thought is remains a mystery from a neuroscientific perspective,” according to Ezequiel
Morsella, Ph.D., an associate professor of Neuroscience at San Francisco State University. “Thoughts
are certainly caused by brain function, but we do not yet have a solid idea regarding what it is about
brain function that gives rise to them.”
As mysterious as thoughts are to the best minds of our time, who spend their days thinking about
thinking, we have developed tools to manage them. Thoughts are abstract, which is
why it seems like a challenge to know what we are thinking at this very moment. By practicing
thought recognition, we can help get off the train at the station we choose. Here is how.
Recognize when you are lost in thought:
Have you driven to work safely but can’t remember the drive? Have you read a chapter in a book but
can’t remember what you read? Do you lose minutes and hours staring at a lit screen? All of these things are common signs that you have been lost in your thoughts, and not living in present moment awareness.
Let your body help you get out of your head
Another way to recognize being lost in thought is through physical sensations. Intentionally
recall a memory that will elicit a familiar, palpable emotion. Notice where strong thoughts are
manifesting in your body. For example, a meditation student of mine reported a queasiness in her stomach. I asked her “What were you thinking the moment the queasiness arose?”
She reported that she had a very busy week ahead with a lot of responsibilities.
“Immediately thoughts of rushing from appointment to appointment flooded my mind, with increasing
queasiness in my belly as thoughts turned to worry that I would miss something important,” the student
said. Noticing a physical sensation, like nausea, can be your internal alarm to ask yourself, “What am I thinking of right now? What is my mind state?”
Getting off the train of thought
Imagine watching a tv while viewing a movie while listening to the radio while checking your email. This is what our mind feels like when we are lost in thought. It becomes a challenge to quantify a single thought with this circus of images, sounds, and colors. Once you realize your mind is lost in thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow, or you become aware that your mind is telling stories both fiction and non fiction, we can help to manage these abstract
thoughts. Simplify thoughts by making a sentence out of the last thought you grasped.
For example, let’s examine the student’s articulated thought stated above. “Immediately thoughts of
rushing from appointment to appointment flooded my mind.”
Now we can make a concrete sentence of that articulated thought with “I have appointments Saturday. Period.” Say the punctuation at the end of the sentence in your mind each time you become aware that you are lost in your thinking. Period.
When you say period, you are pulling the emergency break on the train of thought. To disembark, breathe. You are going about your day and you notice a physical sensation, a rapid heartbeat in your chest perhaps. You ask yourself, “What am I thinking of at this moment? Ahhhh, the project at work not being good enough for my boss.” Make a concrete sentence out of an abstract thought, “When I think about the project at work I notice a rapid heartbeat. Period.” Take a breath in through your nose, and breathe out through your mouth, noticing the quality of air as it enters your nose and exits your mouth.
Notice the texture, temperature, and taste of the oxygen as you inhale and exhale. Repeat this five to ten times, remembering you always have five to ten seconds to center yourself, no matter how busy we all think we are. To bring awareness to the part of your body experiencing the strong physical sensation, hold that area, for example, place your hand on your chest. Then repeat breathing in, and breathing out. You have just disembarked the train of thought.
“All aboard!” Next stop….take a breath, and you choose your own destination.