When you really look closely at anxiety, depression, fear, anger or stress, you will almost always find recurring patterns of negative thoughts, traumatic memories and habitual emotional reactions. They are our tormentors, the pesky biting insects that annoy us throughout the day.
They ambush our consciousness, pull us down and cause stress and emotional suffering. They come uninvited, cause havoc, and we wish that they would go away. If only we could control them, we would certainly have a better chance of controlling our mental state. So how do we do this? The practice of mindfulness ... can provide a path forward.
The first step of mindfulness practice, and one that can make all the difference, is to fully and completely understand that YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS. Thoughts, emotions, in fact any mental content that arises are simply products of conditioning; YOU are much more than this. It is like the ocean and the fish that swim in the ocean. The ocean is not the same as the fish that live in it, and cannot be equated with the contents. The essence of the ocean is as the space that contains these things, not its contents. The same applies to the mind.
The essence of the mind is as a container of experience, the ground in which mental objects, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, perceptions and memories can exist. When you realize this, that you are so much more than your thoughts and emotions, then you are well on the way to gaining your freedom and independence from the pesky flies that cause so much stress and suffering. At the end of the day you have a simple choice to make: Do you want to be the ocean in all its vastness and glory, or do you want to be a fish, flapping around in a state of agitation and fear? Learning to be the ocean is a wise choice, and this is something that can be achieved through the practice of mindfulness.
The trick is to learn to see mental objects as just that, objects, not you, that arise, do their dance and then pass away. Anxiety arises, and what is our usual response? We are ambushed by the emotion and we become the emotion. We become an anxiety-fish! Fear arises and we are seduced into becoming afraid, a fear-fish. Anger arises and we become angry-fish. No choice, no freedom, lots of suffering.
With the practice of mindfulness, we begin to get wise, and become more engaged with what is going on in our minds. Mindfulness helps us tune in to this cycle of habitual emotional reactivity. Instead of blindly accepting our impulses to become anxious, to become afraid, to become fish, we learn to actively engage with these reactions. When anxiety thoughts arise, we respond with, "I see you, anxious thought. I welcome you, I will make a space for you to do your dance, I will listen to you with care and attention...but I will NOT become you." You can learn to mindfully greet each emotion, each negative thought, as a visitor who has come to stay for a while, just like visitors in your home. Invite them in, offer them tea and sit with them for a while. You may not like your visitors, but you know the importance of being kind, courteous and hospitable.