Saturday 1 November 2014

A Bit Of Train Spotting From The Comfort Of Your Own Home?

Train-spotting and Mindfulness, who would have thought!
Those train spotters are onto something. Or are they?
Have you ever found yourself thinking that anyone who spends their spare time spotting trains or planes etc. are completely barmy? I mean, what’s that about? Would you not have better things to do than sit and spot moving things?
I definitely would.
That said, I do remember a teenage summer job working for the local authority in Finland responsible for maintaining roads. That was ‘back in the days’ when electronic traffic monitoring was not yet invented. I was sent off to a stretch of road to sit by the side of it and count passing traffic. It was a tick for a cyclist, pedestrian, car, lorry, tractor….
The job was fun to begin with. What would be easier after all than to sit by the side of a road under the beautiful summer sun with a simple job to notice passing traffic and make note of it? So, there I sat and ticked my A4 sheets diligently. I do remember being quite excited in the beginning and was paying close attention to the cars that were passing by. Their colour and the make and so on. I was enjoying occasional conversations with a passers-by getting off their bikes to find out what I was up to. I was also entertaining myself by imagining where the cars were on their way to. 
Hours passed this way but soon I found myself getting bored. I mean, it was a beautiful day in the middle of a beautiful summer and warm one as such. Perhaps some of those people were off to a nearby beach for a cooling swim and to have fun? On their way for an ice-cream? And there I was, doing this boring summer job to earn a few quid while the rest of them were enjoying the freedom of summer holidays. Why was it me who had to do this? I found myself thinking that I should be entitled to have fun like any other teenager or at least be given a task that was at least a little more interesting. Instead, I was dumped on the side of some road to sit there like some weirdo. I started to feel little stings of envy.
The portable picnic chair I was using started to feel increasingly uncomfortable as the passing traffic became a source of angst. I started to count the hours and then minutes, waiting for my ordeal come to an end. And as I counted the cars and the hours and the minutes, silently cursing the job, I felt my anxiety increase as the minutes seemed to double in length. I was wishing for the day to end and feared that I would be sent off to the same mission again tomorrow. How would I be able to survive another day of this?  
I also felt ashamed.
I had chosen to do that summer job after all, so really what was there to complain about? Why should I feel envious, anxious, angry, and also more than a bit fed up with myself with what I had chosen to do? Except that I had not chosen to sit by the side of the road. Oh no, I was put there like I did not matter and was not given a proper job to do like some of my other teenage friends working for the same department. I would not be feeling like this if only I was doing something worthwhile. Every person who passed by reminded me of this as they headed out for fun and more interesting things to do!
When I returned to the office to hand back my A4 ticks-sheets of paper, I did not speak to anyone and when I got home took my emotions out on my younger brother and my cat who were both running for cover!
I understand now that my predicament was not caused by the situation I found myself in. It was not the fault of the company, who put me on the side of the road to count the traffic, that I felt the way I did. It was not really my fault either. I did not understand then that the way I felt and behaved was because of the endless unconscious and conscious thoughts I had about the situation, and the beliefs that supported those thoughts. In my mind my thoughts were more than thoughts. They were the reality and I was being carried away by them even when they were clearly not helping me.
Now, this is where train spotting comes in, because, the key to learning to let go of unhelpful thoughts is to become aware of your thoughts and beliefs and by learning to spot them. Just like spotting a train. It is surprising how few thoughts we are actually aware of at any given time. In fact, the ones that we are aware of thinking about are just the tip of an iceberg. What sits below the waterline of an iceberg are our unconscious thoughts. All those thoughts that go round in our minds but which we are not aware of. Yet all of these thoughts and the ideas we believe in, both conscious and unconscious, effect the way we feel and behave.
So, how about becoming a train spotter of your thoughts!
In order to spot your thoughts, first of all you need to give yourself an opportunity to do so.  Sit yourself down and become aware of the present moment. A great way to bring yourself into a present moment and keep yourself in there is to focus on your breathing. Noticing how your abdomen expands with every in-breath and lowers with every out-breath. Up and down, up and down, up and down.
After a while you may notice your thoughts starting to drift away from your breath. When you spot that, congratulate yourself. You have just spotted your first thought train!  It is perfectly natural for your thoughts starting to drift… to the plans you have, the million other things you could be doing instead of observing your breathing and the movements of your abdominal muscles as you do so. Simply notice when that happens and bring your focus back on to your breath. Up and down, up and down.
On occasion you may begin to notice thoughts that keep on coming back.  Thoughts that are emotionally charged. That’s okay too. Each time you notice them, congratulate spotting yet another thought train and escort your focus gently back onto your breath. By doing this, you are training your mind that your thoughts are just thoughts and it is not always necessary to react to them.  They are just like carriages of trains coming and going. You may not like some of them and may feel discomfort and that is fine too. Allow yourself to accept that and simply continue to observe them and let them pass by.  
Of course you could choose to jump into one of the carriages and let the train take you away with it, and remarkably so that would be the easiest thing to do in the network of your own mind, but how about choosing to carry on as a train spotter of your thoughts instead? This could indeed become a new hobby of yours. Few minutes of thought-train spotting a day.
There are quite a few benefits of becoming a thought-train spotter. After some time of regular practice you will begin to notice how you have a real choice on how to feel and behave. So that you are not being simply lead by your thoughts and beliefs and end up reacting.  You will learn how to insert a pause between an unhealthy thought and a reaction and how this will help you make better decisions in your everyday life. Your stress levels will decrease and you will truly become the one who is on the driving seat of your own life. And when it comes to hobbies, this way you do not even need to leave the comfort of your own home, unlike those ‘real’ train spotters!
And the result of my day by the side of the road? All those ticks on the A4 sheets of paper were enough to go convince the local authority that the gravel road needed a proper surface. It was what the regular users of the road had been asking for the past year and until then denied.