Think about what it's like when you see a really good movie in the theater
We've all had the experience when we're watching a movie and you are completely engrossed in what's happening on the screen. Something funny happens and you laugh, something scary is about to happen and your heart beats faster.
But sometimes, something can happen in the theater that pulls you out of the movie. Maybe someone drops their popcorn bucket or you hear some other sound that disengages you from the film. You might look around and see the exit signs or the person who came with you to the movie. You are back in reality, momentarily in the present moment. The things happening on the screen aren't happening to you. They are just images accompanied by a soundtrack of music and/or language.
When you were fully engaged with the movie, you are in a sense "in" it. You are identifying with and responding to what's happening on the screen. Of course, the only thing that is actually happening to you is that you are sitting in this theater, watching.
Your thoughts are like a movie in your mind
I'm sure if you took a moment to do so, you could think about something funny that happened and it would make you smile, if not laugh out loud. You could do the same thing by recalling a time you were angry, and you might even notice a physical response like a clenched jaw or increased heart rate. But as you know, this funny moment or anger-inducing event isn't happening to you right now. You're just thinking about it -- picturing the images in your mind and recalling the soundtrack of what was said.
You are not your thoughts
Perhaps this statement seems obvious, but for some of us, this can be a revolutionary idea. I know that I've had some pretty messed up thoughts in my life that I wouldn't want anyone to know about, and I suspect you have, too. Without going into how these thoughts got into your head or why, the point I want to emphasize is that you don't need to identify with them.
Practice pulling yourself out of the movie
The more often you take a moment to pull yourself out of the movie of your mind (your thoughts) to ground yourself in the present moment, the better you get at doing it. Doing this is a very empowering act, because it allows you to get back in the driver's seat of your mind. You can choose to not get hooked by your thoughts. You can see them for what they are: worries, memories, fantasies, plans, etc.
Practicing this everyday, informal mindfulness helps you to be the viewer of the movie, but not in it. It gives you perspective and allows you to strengthen your ability to be a witness to your thoughts without being at the mercy of them, which is so great, some consider it a "superpower."
photo credit: EJ Dilley