This summer’s Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out makes us think about our thinking. But, I wonder, first of all, “Can we even think about our thoughts?”
In fact, over the summer with campers at Lausanne Collegiate School, beginning with junior kindergarten to grade 7, I was teaching them how to observe their thoughts: a course in mindfulness and meditation for children.
We begin by sitting up tall, like a tree. Then we become still, like a mountain. Then we “go inside” like a turtle in a shell. By this time the children are sitting upright cross-legged on the floor or feet hanging on a chair, motionless as a statue with their eyes gently shut.
We begin the exercise by watching our breath: Each inhalation and exhalation, the in and out of the breath, like waves going in and out on a beach. Soon we transition our attention from our breath to our mind. And we watch our thoughts as if they were clouds in the sky. The children become mindful through the practice of meditation.
But the movie Inside Out is not about our thoughts or mindfulness; it is about our feelings or emotions. It is about a 12-year old-child, Riley, whose emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness are personified as characters who guide her through a life transition. At one instance, Disgust takes over when she has to eat broccoli, and at another time Anger causes her to have a temper tantrum and overwhelms her when she has a difficult time adjusting in school.
So how are thoughts and emotions related? Although we feel emotions every moment of every day, we often don’t realize that they are caused by our thoughts.
“What are thoughts?” a student once asked.
Thoughts are brief mental events, which can be an observation (a summer sun), an idea (walk into the shade), a judgment (it’s cooler in the shade), or an opinion (avoid being out in the sun). They differ from emotions, which are a state of mind, often the collective impact of our thoughts (feeling upset for having to stand in the heat.)
Thoughts are like ripples or waves on the surface of a body of water and emotions are the collective body of water at that time. In our day to day hectic lives, we do not routinely recognize our thoughts, but we can feel our emotions. Mindfulness helps us become aware of our thoughts and realize that we have the ability to choose the direction, the duration and intensity of our emotional responses.
Understanding the interplay of thoughts and emotions can be insightful. For example during our meditation one student seemed to intentionally tap his feet, disturbing the group. Some became angry while others did not.
Why is that the case? Why can the same trigger cause different levels of anger or lack anger in different people?
I asked the students, “Does anger happen to us? Or do we make anger happen?” They get it. They see how anger is a product of our mind and not our environment, though the environment can be a trigger.
The key, I tell the young campers, is to know that you have control over your mind, which houses these thoughts and emotions, just like you have control over your arms and legs, and just as you have control over your breath.
Being inside your/their own mind, during the first time meditating, can be an unsettling feeling for youngsters — even adults have trouble grappling with this. Maybe if we start early enough we can better control our emotions through observing our thoughts: We can manage our anger, avoid succumbing to our fear, handle our sadness and find peace and serenity in our day-to-day joys of life.
Manoj Jain is an infectious disease physician and contributor to the Washington Post and the Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Manoj Jain. This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
Image credit: Forbes.com