For a lot of my life, I had trouble falling asleep at night. I would usually lie there for 30 – 60 minutes until my thoughts slowed down enough to allow me some sleep.
It wasn’t just at night. All day long, the thoughts in my head went on and on and on. I had difficulty paying attention to lectures or reading books without lots of mind wandering.
At the same time, I became very skilled at analysis and articulating myself. People always said I was very thoughtful and discerning. This felt good to hear.
In other words, I became very good at thinking, but I paid a price for it—not being very present in other aspects of my life.
I often wondered if there had to be this trade off. Couldn’t I be both good at thinking and present in my life?
After years of meditation, I’ve learned that the answer is yes!
In the past, when I tried to fall asleep, I would get absorbed in thought-chains and wouldn’t realize it for maybe 1-30 minutes. And, even once I realized it, I couldn’t get out—my inner monologue just sucked me in, like a tornado.
Nowadays, I still get distracted easily, but I generally realize I’ve wandered off after only seconds. And, once I’ve realized it, I now have the “mental strength” to not go back into the thought unless I choose to.
What I’m describing is becoming efficient with thinking.
Meditation hasn’t weakened my thinking skills. I’m not “empty-minded.” Rather, I’m still a deep thinker and careful strategizer. The change is that I learned about 95% of my thinking was useless and repetitive, while only about 5% was original and valuable.
I simply have stopped doing most that useless and repetitive thinking. The ability to do this is one of the core superpowers of mindfulness.
Meditation isn’t really so much about learning how to not think, as is it about learning discernment. It teaches you how to be more efficient and effective in the world.
On top of being more effective with my thinking, one neat side-benefit is that I now rarely need more than a few minutes (if that) to fall asleep at night. I get better sleep and wake up more refreshed. The effects of not compulsively thinking all the time are wide-ranging.
A homework assignment: start to notice how many of your thoughts are actually original and valuable. If you notice yourself thinking, ask yourself how important it is to keep thinking that thought. Simple, but powerful.