One of the best lessons from mindfulness training is that our minds have a mind of their own. We can’t necessarily control the automatic thoughts that pop into our minds, any more that we can control the automatic emotions that arise in response. So what, then, should we do when our mind gets stuck in a cycle of rumination?
Usually we try to argue with our thoughts, ignore them, or replace them with other thoughts. In contrast, mindfulness training teaches us to disengage from repetitive thoughts by recognizing that not every thought that crosses our mind is urgent or requires a response, and to practice seeing thoughts for what they are: mere strings of words that may or may not be important. Recognizing that a given thought isn’t important eliminates the pressure to respond to it or the struggle to get rid of it.
One way to recognize and disengage is to become familiar with our mind’s go-to stressful or defeating thoughts. American Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein refers to these repetitive cognitions as the mind’s “Top Ten Tunes.” The idea is that your mind gets stuck on unhelpful thoughts in the same way it can get stuck on a commercial jingle, oldie, or top ten hit. For example, if your mind repeatedly reminds you of the possibility of losing your job, “I could get fired” may be one of your top ten tunes. If you tend to ruminate about your child’s safety, your top tune might be “X (insert name here) has been injured/kidnapped/killed.” If you’re easily triggered by concerns about your finances, one of your top ten tunes might be “I can’t afford it!”
I’ve shared this trick with various clients, friends, and mindfulness students, and nearly everyone can immediately identify a few of their top tunes. One friend identified “I’m a bad mother;” another listed “I’m a bad teacher;” a mindfulness student pinpointed “Everyone’s smarter than me;” another student recognized “It’s not fair.”
How does identifying our top ten tunes help?
Simply recognizing and acknowledging our tunes can help us gain perspective and respond differently. If my friend notices that her mind is playing the “I’m a bad mother” tune, she has a few choices. She can try to convince herself she’s a good mom, using logic and examples. She can try to ignore the tune in her head. She can fall into the tune and become convinced that it’s true. Or she can simply recognize what’s happening and say to herself “Ah yes, that old I’m a bad mother tune” and let it be. It doesn’t mean the tune will disappear, but seeing it for what it is decreases the tune’s power, and eliminates the struggle to get rid of it.
The next time you get stuck in a familiar unhelpful thought, see if you can name that tune. What happens?