Okay, I admit it! I like retro cartoons - cartoons from my youth. I like the characters, the zany plots, the animation and the music. I guess somewhere deep inside me is a 10-year-old boy whose happiest times were watching the likes of Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones, and Scooby Doo. The other day I caught a glimpse of the intro to the Jetsons - particularly the scene where George Jetson is walking the family dog Astro ... on a treadmill! Makes me chuckle every time I see it.
The treadmill idea has stuck in my mind, and it reminded me that sometimes, those who are more introspective tend to spend a lot of time in their minds processing thoughts and experiences. Sometimes this processing can be a bridge to help us make progress; sometimes it can be a treadmill! The treadmill gives the illusion that we are sorting things out, but in truth, we expend a lot of mental energy, produce a great deal of anxiety and make no forward progress at all.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could discern between the kind of processing that is a bridge to greater wholeness and the dreaded treadmill? Let's try!
Have you passed that rock before?
Look for the mental and emotional landmarks when you find yourself processing a lot. Recognizing certain landmarks in our thoughts can be a clue that we are going around in circles. These landmarks can be specific thoughts, phrases, or replaying scenarios - real or imagined.
These landmarks can also serve as clues to where we might want to prayerfully look a little closer. What could they be telling us about the root of our distress? Could these be clues to the taskmaster that keeps driving us along? Is there an invitation of the Spirit to explore them a little deeper?
Are you making progress or spinning your wheels?
In my part of Canada, four-wheel drive vehicles are very popular. While they can provide great traction, but there are times they do get stuck, and when they do, they really get stuck! The more the wheels spin, the more stuck they become. When we get stuck on the treadmill, we soon discover that despite’s lots of time and energy we aren’t making any forward progress, and in many cases, we may find ourselves more stuck. Again, notice your emotions - are the thoughts getting more frantic and unwieldy or are you getting a sense of peace and a sense of the way through?
Progress can be slow, so don’t despise small beginnings. Often progress builds upon the ground gained before it. A small revelation or insight is often the catalyst for the next step forward!
Be careful of your questions
Almost 20 years ago, a young man in the youth group we were leading was shot and killed in our local high school. In fact, it was two weeks after the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado. It was the first of its kind in Canada. It was a HUGE shock! Horrifying! In the face of shock and tragic circumstances, one naturally is working overtime to make sense of what has happened. But some things, some questions, will never have a satisfactory answer. You can understand the facts of a situation but even knowing them is bitterly unsatisfying. For me, evil is a mystery. It defies any rationale. Even to blame it on a sinful, fallen world falls flat in the darkness of evil. It is my conviction that the only rugged enough response to the mystery of evil is healthy faith.
This to say that while we can ask the question, knowing it is possible that a satisfactory, comforting answers will be elusive. It is here that we can cast the unknowing, the bewilderment onto Jesus. What I mean is we don’t have to walk in mystery on our own. That even through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil because God is with us. Even in the presence of our enemies this same God is with us, and as the psalmist says "preparing a table before us". The present presence of the God-who-loves is with us always.
I don’t know if catastrophizing is a real word, but it is used by some to describe those times where our thoughts get away on us. Does this seem familiar?
You have an upcoming performance review with your boss, and in the anxiety, you feel about it, the twisted fantasy begins. Before you know it, you imagine the worst possible scenario complete with the whole transcript of the imaginary conflict. By the time the smoke clears we are in a full-blown lather as we have imagined telling our boss where to go and how to get there, and that he has a stupid haircut! If you are really stressed, then you panic because you imagine you’ll have to sleep on your brother-in-law’s couch and endure his moronic story of how he made up the phrase "Cheese Doodle!" You get the idea!
Catastrophizing can happen so quickly but to recognize it can be an indication that we are on an unhealthy treadmill, and when we realize it, its time to step off.
Get out of your head!
Part of the problem is many of us who are susceptible to the treadmill tend to cling to the troublesome thoughts. Instead of clinging to these thoughts, we can practice acknowledging them, and let them carry on through and out of our mind. Research has shown that trying to control unwanted thoughts, often results in increased tenaciousness of the thoughts.
I found it particularly helpful when I realized that my thoughts are NOT who I am. I am much more than my thoughts. They come, and they go. I have an exercise where I imagine a river. I notice the current, the colour of the water and the banks. When I have a nagging thought enter my mind, I envision it as a log, drifting down the river. I watch it come and watch it go and gently resisting the temptation to try and grab the log and ride it down the river.
When there is a particularly persistent thought, I find it is important for me to get out of my head, or off the treadmill. This simply means I need to make a change in the moment, and often this includes something that is creative, expressive, experiential or physical. This tends to help get me back into the present moment and off the treadmill. The following are some of my favourites.
Practical Tips for Getting off the Treadmill
- Walk or exercise to expend the emotional energy physically.
- Gardening. Get your hands in the dirt!
- Painting, sculpt, work in a colouring book, dance, sing, build model airplanes or birdhouses or some other kind of creating.
- Ritual - meaningful rituals can help root us in the present moment along with a sense of the transcendent.
- Nature - touch, smell, listen, (if safe, taste).
- Volunteer for a cause that means something to you.
- Active Prayer, meditation. For example, Yoga, Tai Chi, prayer walk, - these active forms of prayer get us out of our heads and engages our whole bodies
"Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don't.” ― John Green, Turtles All the Way Down
"Don’t believe everything you think." - Anon.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8).