Whatever you give your attention to gets bigger.
I can’t remember the first time I heard this. It might have been from my mother, who isn’t one to stew or dwell, or an early yoga teacher, or an old book. I know it was during my teenage years, at a time when I was probably stewing and dwelling a lot on things that maybe—imagine ça?!—didn’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Stewing is understandable: It’s what teenagers (and the rest of us) do all the time. But I had an early sense that looping thoughts and unproductive lines of mental inquiry could and should somehow be avoided. Easier said than done, obviously. This early lesson was my first clue as to how.
But what exactly are we talking about? The idea is simple, and it doesn’t require flaky hocus-pocus thinking (which is my specialty, obvs) to accept. Simply, whatever you focus on—good, bad, stressful, pleasant, anxiety-provoking, calming, exciting—is amplified in the mind. It takes up space. It grows. Put even more simply: Whatever you’re thinking about, you’re thinking about. If that thing is bad, then you have bad in your head. If that thing is good, you have good in your head.
None of this would matter, of course, if we saw everything as it really is, but we don’t. We have a single sticky thought and then launch a search-and-capture mission in our mind looking for other things that support that original one. As we do this, the idea pile-on grows and the next thing you know it, that silly, fleeting thought has pitched a tent in our mind and won’t budge, Occupy-styles.
Unfortunately we do this more with negative thoughts than positive ones. Let’s call this, gently, a “not very productive way to use our brains.”
But here’s the good news: The process that can make us miserable can also be flipped on its head to cultivate joy, compassion, peace and love if we do it right. We know our thoughts affect our feelings, and our feelings affect our physical body. They can trigger stress hormones, aggravate chronic pain, promote inflammation, disrupt sleep, trigger breakouts—the list goes on. And nothing on that list is awesome.
On the flip side, focusing deliberately and carefully on positive things can have an opposite effect. I was reminded about this recently when I was struggling with looping thoughts. As anyone who’s been there (all of you) knows, you can get exactly nowhere in that state of mind. Of course, anyone who’s been there (again, all of you) knows that when you’re in that state of mind it can be very hard to rip yourself from it and say: OK, stupid thought, I’m not going to think you anymore. Instead I’m going to think about what I want, what I’m happy about, what I’m grateful for.
But as with all good habits, this one is self-perpetuating. The more you force yourself to do it, kicking and screaming, faking it until you make it, the more you see it works, and then the more likely you are to keep doing it.
An important point here: This is not like The Secret, and not about changing the course of events with your brain. We can’t do that, unfortunately. And sometimes bad things do happen! But thinking about them all the time can’t stop that, so this trains your mind to quiet down in the face of things you can’t control (everything!) and cultivate some good feelings while you’re at it.
Whatever you give your attention to gets bigger.
Trust us! It’s true. Now, what to do about it?
There are a million ways to practice visualization, and it has many different applications. Here are five I like.
1. Mentally rehearse positive outcomes. This is big with athletes, and can have a very practical application…or be an example of magical thinking (see below), depending on how you use it. Good yoga teachers will tell you to spend months literally visualizing the steps to get into a headstand—a challenging pose, no question—before you actually try to get upside down in the middle of the room. When I first learned it, my teacher wouldn’t let us practice against the wall because it would set us up with a crutch, she said. Instead, we had to picture a headstand, step by step, until we could do it. Similarly, a University of Chicago study looked at how mental rehearsing, as it’s sometimes called, might help basketball players with their free throws; the results were unequivocal, with visualizers sinking the ball way more than the controls. Professional athletes talk about this, and Olympians too.
The scientific explanation seems to be that repeatedly thinking about doing something creates neural patterns in the brain for that action—a blueprint, if you will. Your brain then trains your body to execute that thing, because it already knows how to. Crazy! And true.
2. Picture what you want. Of course, if the outcome you’re looking for is of the more interpersonal nature—about your career, or your kids, or your husband or wife—it doesn’t work the same way. You can train your brain all you want, but when there are other people involved, all bets are off, right? Well… Sort of. I’m a big believer in creating the conditions for the outcome you want. You can’t make magic happen (mayyyybe), but you can create the right conditions for things to happen, and part of that, for me, is focusing on positive thoughts—what I want as opposed to what I’m scared of. Alexandra and I are both really keen on this. To do it, simply picture what you want. Not just having it, but getting it. Really imagine, with your eyes closed and your mind focused, what it would feel like to have that thing, or what it would feel like not have to worry about that other thing. Put yourself there, and think about what it looks like, feels like, smells like. Set a scene, and give it your attention and then go back to it often.
3. Imagine thoughts shrinking…or growing. When I have a thought that won’t budge and is stressing me out, I like to name it—Oh, hey, mean thought that is telling me I will never be a prima ballerina—and then picture it in a circle in my mind, almost like a sign that’s been tacked up for me to read. I picture the thought I don’t like, and then I picture the circle shrinking slowly until it’s a speck instead of a menacing, pulsating globe of badness. Similarly, if I want to cultivate something positive, like peace of mind, or the feeling that everything is as it should be, then I do the same, only I start small and picture it growing in my mind until it takes up all the space I can imagine. This fills me with a feeling of wellbeing that is indescribable. I’m not sure why, but I trust it.
4. Do the white light thing. We’re getting increasingly weird here! OK so this one is just what it sounds like. Call to mind a thought, a circumstance, a person, an illness—anything that is giving you a little bit of a headache right now—and really hold that person or idea in your mind. Focus on it like you’re studying a map. Look at it, and identify what it looks like. Try as best you can not to THINK about it, but just see it in your mind. Then you get out your magic white-light wand and tap your thought three times (LOL), basking it in white light. If you want to pick another color, feel free. Whatever color signifies peace and healing to you is the color to pick here. Bask that thing in light like your life depends on it. Then when you’re done, do it again.
5. Picture a person you see as an evolved being and stare at them. This can be your grandpa or your guru, your lover of your childhood best friend—anyone who to you represents peace or wisdom or love. Maybe it’s someone who loves you unconditionally or a spiritual guide. I was taught this by one of my teachers, and he recommends picking someone you actually know or have come into contact with, as opposed to someone sort of remote, like Gandhi or the Virgin Mary (unless, of course, you’ve met them). Picture them sitting in front of you at eye level and just give them a gander. Look at the outline of their body, and their eyes, and their face. Smile at them, maybe. Hold them in your mind for a few minutes, and then when you’re done, say thank you.
Has anyone else tried visualization or mental rehearsing? Do you think it could help you stop bad thoughts in their tracks?