Wise Relationships

How to Not Think: Hint—It’s Not What You Think

May 10, 2022

Mindful awareness of flat spots, the space between thoughts, can help you find peace in even the most painful or sticky thoughts.

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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Step back from the content of your thoughts

Key Points:

  • There is a way to not think—or at least to find spaces without thought—and it’s likely not what you’ve tried.
  • You can find this space of “no-thing” by paying attention to the space between your thoughts.
  • Mindful awareness of flat spots can help you find peace in even the most painful or sticky thoughts.

When I can’t sleep it’s usually because I am caught up in thought. I’m sure you can relate. I go around opening all the cupboards of worry in my mind. Then I start worrying about not sleeping. “I wish I could just stop thinking,” I say to myself.

Unfortunately the more you try and not think, the louder your thoughts get. Just as saying to yourself “stop thinking about your big toe” makes your big toe tingle, trying to “not think” makes you think more.

The Flat Spot

There is a way to not think—or at least to find spaces without thought—and it’s likely not what you’ve tried. I recently interviewed Dr. Steven Hayes, the co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for the Your Life in Process podcast. The author of 670 scientific articles and 47 books, Dr. Hayes is an expert in helping people get some space from their thoughts so they can be freed from their minds and live fulfilling lives.

His suggestion for me? Find the flat spot between your thoughts. If you pay attention to your mind you will notice:

  1. Your mind is producing thoughts. Much like dirty laundry, they keep on coming!
  2. There is a space between your thoughts—a flat spot—before the thought arises and after the thought is done.

The flat spot between our thoughts is a place where “no thing” exists. It’s like the pauses between your inhale and exhale when your breath just hovers, or the moment before you act on your urge. The flat spot is a break in thinking and acting.

Victor Frankl spoke of a similar pause when he described the space between stimulus and response. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön calls this space no-thing-ness.

No-Thing-Ness

You can find this space of “no-thing” by paying less attention to the space between your thoughts. Don’t get caught up in your thought’s content (e.g., what if I can’t sleep?!), but instead look for the space around the content. Much like a photographer who pays attention to the background as much as the foreground, look for the background of your thinking and scan for a moment, no matter how fleeting, when there is no thought. A flat spot.

Stepping back from the content of your thoughts in this way is what ACT therapists call “cognitive defusion.”

This flat spot is oddly comforting. You are not your thoughts. No matter how busy your mind is, you can find a break in your thinking. As a California girl, I relate it to the moment before the ocean wave rises and crashes on the shore; the ocean is flat and calm.

You can also use this flat spot exercise in your relationships, your stressful day, your chronic pain, or your addictive behaviors.

  • Can you find a flat spot where you aren’t ruminating about your divorce?
  • Can you find a flat spot when your urge to use a substance is absent?
  • Is there a flat spot when your self-critic has quieted?
  • Is there a flat spot in your physical exercise where it feels effortless?

Don’t Force It, Attend To It

Once you look for flat spots, you may notice they are everywhere. And the more you look for them, the longer they seem to last. Mindful awareness of flat spots will help you find peace in even the most painful or sticky thoughts.

Dr. Hayes shared with me that finding flat spots is different than forcing them or making them happen. They are already there. You cannot force yourself to not think just as you cannot force the ocean to stop producing waves. Trying to not think has the paradoxical effect of making you think more. But you can find peace of mind in the flat spots between your thoughts. And when you linger in them long enough you just might fall asleep.

Try it out.

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