Hannah Frahm is a dual-qualified Scottish-German solicitor working with Brodies LLP.  She also teaches mindfulness and meditation at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh (currently online, given the circumstances).

In my last blog (published pre-lockdown, little did I know) I talked about our brain’s tendency to prioritise negative thoughts and feelings over positive ones. This so called “negativity bias” developed as a survival tool which, from an evolutionary point of view, makes sense (it is better to focus on potentially life-threatening events rather than on “happy thoughts”). However, in modern day life its utility might be overshadowed by the potentially negative impact on our wellbeing.

The current situation puts additional strain on all of us and feeds the “negativity bias”. What we need is a little breathing space between ourselves and whatever negative thoughts and feelings arise from the challenges we are facing at the moment.

You are not your thoughts - you have thoughts

We are in the midst of a global pandemic and I can hear my grouch brain smugly say “Told ya! Life is dangerous.”

Don’t believe everything you think. It is very important to understand that we have thoughts rather than being one with them.

When things get messy in life it can be very hard to see the divide that separates the content of our mind (“I think”) and the self (“I am”). In particular negative mind activity (stress, anxiety, fear, frustration) can consume our whole being. We “become” the thought or feeling: “I am anxious” and “I am stressed”, rather than “I am experiencing feelings of anxiety” and “I am having stressful thoughts”. This works the other way around too, but we are, rightly so, quite comfortable with “I am happy” or “I am in love”.

How to create distance - the 'undercurrent and observer' model

A good way to illustrate the divide between mental activity and self is the “undercurrent and observer” model developed by Rob Nairn.

Take a standard definition of mindfulness - knowing what is happening, while it is happening, without getting carried away by it. The “undercurrent” is the what is happening, and the “observer” is the being who can know what is happening. Recognise that there are two players in this game rather than just one formless blob of thoughts and self and you are half-way to your breathing space.

The “undercurrent” is the constantly changing, ever flowing, never stopping content of your mind, the constant internal “chatter” if you want. The content of the “undercurrent” is entirely beyond our control, thoughts come and go of their own volition. The “undercurrent” flows beneath the intentional mind activity, i.e., what we are focusing on at any given moment.

Imagine you are in a client meeting or in court, deliberately directing your attention to certain (legal) questions. That is your “intentional mind” at work. On your way back to the office or home, chances are that you are diving deep into the “undercurrent”, the constant and unintentional stream of random thoughts, memories, images. You are literally “lost in thought”. Up bobs the memory of an argument with a friend, and you become angry and upset just by reviving that moment.

That’s the nature and the power of the “undercurrent” and also the why we need to exercise some control. We constantly get involved with our internal chatter. We are constantly engaging with whatever the “undercurrent” randomly throws at us. This is problematic because we know that the lion’s share of our mental activity is either negative or unhelpful. But we shouldn't constantly and unintentionally feed energy into negative, unhealthy or even destructive thoughts and emotions.

The “observer” in this model is the “I am”, or the awareness of thought activity. It is the voice that says “My thoughts.” Ideally, the “observer” sits quietly and comfortably on the banks of the “undercurrent” and simply observes what’s happening without feeling the need to engage with its random and fragmented content. The memory of the argument with that friend? The ideal “observer” notices its presence, recognizes it as part of the “undercurrent” and stays put, watching it flow by.

So, what to do?

The “undercurrent” shelters creatures from our past (thoughts, feelings, memories etc.). These are constantly trying to get our attention, wanting us to feed energy into them. Because it is made up of our past experiences the content of the “undercurrent” cannot be changed. What happened happened. Trying to influence or even oppress whatever thoughts come up is utterly futile and a waste of energy.

What can be changed is the attitude of the “observer”. The job of the “observer” is to stay put on the banks of the “undercurrent” and let the creatures do their thing until they disappear. We can train our minds to do exactly that: stay put until we decide to engage, instead of getting carried away with whatever our mind throws at us.

Control your mind or your mind controls you. Most of what is happening in the world and in our lives at the moment is beyond our control. What we can do, if we choose to, is to take a step back from our panicking brains and to create that little bit of distance.

As Greek philosopher Epictetus said: “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.” Let’s start questioning our thoughts and taking a different view of them.

Stay safe, stay home, spread calm.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.