Mindfulness: The Freedom to Choose

Woman meditating indoorsBeing mindful means being aware of the body’s inner and outer processes as they present themselves in the moment. The main inner observations are the observations of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations.

One instruction I give when introducing basic mindfulness meditation is that the moment that you notice that you are thinking is a moment of choice. Rather than continue the process of just thinking, you may choose to shift awareness from the thought and come back to the breath, or you may choose to go on thinking and developing and following those thoughts.

During the formal practice of mindfulness meditation, the initial intention is to shift awareness from the thought, or to just observe it. But sometimes one chooses to stay with “thinking.” Sometimes the the thought is too luring, or it’s a habit to follow such a thought. Maybe a new idea emerges that the person wants to develop and implement, or many other reasons. No matter what one chooses, I’d like to emphasize the realization that there is a choice.

When I say “there is a choice,” I don’t mean that one can willingly stop a certain thought, emotion, or sensation. Thoughts have their own energy. The brain is trained to provide warnings, safety measures, and reminders as part of its constant efforts to protect us.

The choice, therefore, is deciding whether one dwells in thoughts or feelings, encourages or believes in them, or notices them without getting engaged or reactive. Acknowledgement of thinking, feeling, and sensing is itself important. It’s like a wave coming at you when you swim—first you have to notice that it’s coming, then you may ride it or dive underneath it. Usually you want to try to prevent being trapped in it when it breaks so that it won’t shake you all over. You can’t choose whether the wave is there or not, but you can choose (with some swimming instructions) how you meet it.

The awareness and observation of thoughts, emotions, and sensations allows a little gap between the appearance of the inner activity and “you,” and this gap enables having a choice. This is one of the main therapeutic “secrets” of mindfulness. When one realizes that there is an option—that control is not necessarily in the content of thoughts or in a certain sensation or feeling, but rather in the observer within—one can take control over his or her life.

Again and again, I witness clients discovering this secret and learning to deal differently with negative thoughts, worries, rumination, destructive reactivity, and even body pain. Recently three clients realized that they have control over their thoughts and feelings. For each of them, it meant something different in regard to their therapy.

One, whose  issues with a co-worker caused her anxiety and ruminations, experienced relief about having the choice not to fuel those and instead release energy to positive activities. She learned to listen to her needs and express them and overcame the anxiety and depression she was experiencing. She chose to terminate therapy, feeling that she achieved what she needed and has the tools to cope with future stressors.

The second client is just starting to recognize that she has the freedom to choose not to become engaged with the negative thoughts that cause her to be depressed. Gaining inner control requires learning, practicing, and experimenting. Breaking lifelong habits and habitual reactions is a long process. This client continues to work in therapy to strengthen and establish her emerging freedom.

The third client came back to therapy after taking a long break. She acknowledges a huge change in herself that expresses itself in her ability to be happy again. She is able to face challenges with openness and courage and choose where she puts her energy. She came back to therapy to support the change and work on other issues with this new approach to herself.

When we talk about freedom, there is sometimes a sense of magnificence and greatness. But freedom can be quiet and subtle. It can simply be an inner sense of release and self-control, recognition of having options, and an understanding that the essence of who you are is beyond the content of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Recognizing this kind of freedom invites the potential to positively change your life.

© Copyright 2010 by Yael Schweitzer, LCSW, BC-DMT, therapist in Portland, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • jake

    December 2nd, 2010 at 11:42 AM

    although i’m a very calm person in general and i do believe that our thoughts and feelings are under our control,they just escape and go out of control in extreme circumstances and i end up behaving like a completely different person.is this normal at all?

  • M. Brown

    December 9th, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    love this article, thank you! I’m always interested in learning more about mindfulness

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