Updated: Jul 4, 2022
Steven Hayes (Acceptance Commitment Theory founder) says that in between each thought there is a flat spot of not thinking.
It goes like this:
A thought arises and you can almost feel it lift up into your brain.
Sometimes it causes some associative thinking - other thoughts get tagged on real quick.
But then that wave drops down again.
Then there’s a flat spot before the next thought comes up.
What this means is we know how to stop thinking.
We just have to practice it and learn how to access that stillness.
One way to apply this is when you’re trying to go to sleep but you keep worrying about things. You keep having thoughts that keep you awake. Neurologically, thinking about things and particularly worrying is arousing. It’s the opposite of sleeping. And then there is that sleep-killer thought: "Why can't I sleep???"
But still, those thoughts rise and they fall and there’s a flat spot. See if you can pay more attention to the flat spot than the thought. Kind of like focusing on the bottom of the exhale before the next breath. In fact, that might help you find more flat spots. If you can lengthen those flat spots just a tiny tiny little bit you’ll fall asleep more quickly. Find a flat spot for six for 60 seconds, and you’re probably asleep.
Your body knows how to sleep, but your mind doesn’t, at least not sometimes. So it’s a skill we need to teach our minds. Set an intention to watch for the nothing.
This idea of looking for the flat spot can apply to any form of discomfort you’re having. Maybe you’re going through some grieving, or a really emotional time, or conflict. Looking for the flat spot where that isn’t so intense and where you get those tiny breaks can be helpful in eventual resolution. To remind yourself that there’s another way of being alive. That discomfort is not all you will ever experience.
We’re looking for the trough between the waves, the pause after the exhale before the inhale, the moments when you really are OK in the middle of difficulty.
The flat spots in between the drama of our lives offer us a small window into the magic of the pause. When we pause we have an opportunity to drop into our living experience more. Beneath the choppy thoughts and auto-pilot reactions.
There is a stillness in each of us that is always there and is always accessible if we can find a way to drop into it. Looking for the flat place between thoughts and feelings, looking for the moments when you are alright in the midst of life, that is how to practice. Pay more attention to the space between the notes.
The word nothing came from two words: no thing. Because nothing has no edges. It’s not a thing. Things have edges that contain their label or identity, which is stuff we have made up about them. The truth is we are so much bigger than a thing. We are not a thing. We are 1 million things. We are everything and nothing. We are the experience moving through this body right now. That has no edges.
One of my teachers, Barry Long, used to say:
"You are not your thoughts.
You are not your feelings.
You are not your past experiences.
You are not even your name."
Being nothing can be mildly alarming at first.
When I first began looking at this, I felt untethered, but also somehow comforted. I felt more clearly that I was part of a whole. The ocean and the wave.
Once you get used to not being tied down by your thoughts, it feels really good.
It feels free.
The podcast that inspired this post is Your Life In Process, episode air date May 2, 2022.