How often do you find yourself caught up in your own mind: replaying certain scenes from your day, thinking about what happened and how it affected you — or how it might affect you in the future, trying to imagine all the possible ways you think a situation might play out, or immersed in thoughts or worries about an issue or conflict with your significant other, a family member, or a friend?

Chances are, this happens fairly often for you, as it does for many people. And when you’re not engaged in these types of thoughts, your mind might be consumed with thoughts about the things you are planning or wish were different in your life — whether it’s your job or work or next career move, your finances (especially any debt), your relationship or the absence of one, your health and appearance (especially your weight or wrinkles!), or your level of energy or happiness. These are some of the most common things we spend a good portion of our lives dwelling on and worrying about, and, often, they can keep us from fully enjoying the life that’s right in front of us — but we don’t have to let them.

These thought patterns are mental habits we’ve developed over the course of our entire lives. When we feel things are going well with our work, our relationships, and our health, for example, we generally feel more alive and enthusiastic about the world. We’ll even repeatedly replay the ‘really good scenes’ during these times in our mind, like a highlight reel on a loop, hoping we can use the positive feelings they engender to get us through the rough times in our lives. But when things aren’t going how we’d like, we can feel like a vicious cycle of thoughts has taken over our mind — and it can be extremely difficult to break free of it. We can focus obsessively on and analyze all of the various aspects of these situations, thinking that if we think it through enough, the right answer will come. During this process though, we usually end up feeling anxious, fearful, worried, angry, unhappy, or even depressed. As a result, many people have difficulty being productive at work, engaging positively with family or friends, expressing enthusiasm or feeling a sense of purpose in life. Others turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, overeating, or other addictive outlets and distractions to escape these disturbing feelings.

While deeply engrained habits can be hard to break, just like learning to play a new instrument or a sport, we can ‘free ourselves of these mental chains’ with new skills, determination, and practice. We can learn new ways of living that reduce stress and encourage happiness so we no longer feel like victims of our own minds. We can begin to identify what causes us to get into negative thought patterns and, in addition, we can become acutely aware of when we are already experiencing one — so we can get out of it. We can also discover the sources of our negative thoughts and, in doing so, be far less affected by them or eliminate them completely. We may come to the realization that what floods our minds during difficult times can be the result of a myriad of experiences and conditions which may include our upbringing, societal conditioning, and other influential life experiences. Our continual grasping for something we want but don’t have, our betrayal of an inner truth, and our deepest fears may also be included in the litany of causes of our negative thinking and self- absorption. Further, we may find that sometimes what imprisons and torments our minds may be based on misinformation or misunderstanding, rather than on reality, or on the undue emphasis we have placed on the importance of something in the larger scheme of things. We can learn the value of not taking our minds quite so seriously.

One of the best tools we have available to us to transform our unhealthy mental habits – for free, whenever and wherever we choose to do it – is meditation. When we meditate, we find we can actually observe our minds. We see that our mind is a tool that often operates out of habit and is a ‘mental filing cabinet’ for the knowledge and input to which it has been exposed over a lifetime. We can simply sit and watch our mind go! Ever have a song stuck in your head? That’s a perfect example of our mind’s habit of cycling through particular thoughts. As a result of observing how the mind really works, we begin to gain a heightened awareness of what it gets hung up on, what it obsesses over, and what thought patterns are really causing us unhappiness. Then, we practice not judging these thoughts anymore – trying to push the bad thoughts away and hold on to the pleasant thoughts – because we realize having these thoughts is just a basic function of the human mind. The mind does this out of habit; we don’t need to judge it — or ourselves. We begin to practice just observing these unhealthy thoughts and then letting them dissolve on their own, and with that release, we come to a restful, happier state of mind. We have the opportunity to take a much needed break from our seemingly endless thinking. It is in this space that we can cultivate and reinforce positive thoughts and feelings that contribute to and enhance our life experience instead of detract from it.

Through meditation, we can become more compassionate, loving, and tolerant (if not entirely accepting!) toward ourselves and others. We can release resentment and fill ourselves with forgiveness and gratitude. Because we are no longer stuck in our mind, self-absorbed and focused on our troubles, conflicts, or all the things we wish we had, we can more frequently experience being present in each moment and enjoying the life that’s right in front of us. The majority of life moments tend toward goodness, when we are not dwelling on problems from the past or worrying about the future. We feel more inspired and our creativity flows more effortlessly. Meditation frees our mind so that our spirit can soar!

Please see other articles on this site to learn how to meditate.