To further develop the concept of defusion, Dr. Harris begins the chapter entitled “Look Who’s Talking” by asking readers: when you’re not listening to someone and you claim to be “somewhere else” – where are you?
Haven’t we all had this experience? You’re present in a certain moment, but your mind has wandered. For me, it often happens in the car. I’ll put a song on and intend to listen to the lyrics. A couple minutes later I’ll realize the song is almost over and I didn’t recall hearing it. My thoughts had hooked me and took me “somewhere else”.
His explanation of this phenomenon is that there are two different parts of yourself: the “thinking self” (commonly referred to as your mind) and the “observing self”. The thinking self is that part of you that thinks, plans, makes judgments, etc. While the observing self is responsible for awareness, attention, and focus. The observing self can observe thoughts coming and going from our minds, but it doesn’t produce thoughts.
Harris provides an illustration of how our thinking and observing selves function by describing the process of viewing a sunset. When you first see a sunset there may be a few moments where you are entirely focused on just observing the view. Then, your thinking self starts the commentary: “Wow, this is so beautiful! I should grab my camera. This reminds me of that sunset on the beach last summer.” Etc. Your attention is now on the thoughts, judgments, and noise coming from your mind and therefore you’re not fully focused on what you are observing.
To experience this dichotomy directly, Harris outlines an exercise that goes like this:
Close your eyes for one minute and simply notice what your mind does. Stay on the lookout for any thoughts or images as if you were a wildlife photographer waiting for an exotic animal to emerge from the undergrowth.
What you’ll notice is that there are two distinct processes happening: the thoughts or images in your mind and your observation of those thoughts or images. You can distinctly say, “There’s a thought and there it goes, out of my mind.”
So, how does this relate to defusion?
First, this realization helps you understand that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go and they don’t necessarily deserve your attention. Attention and focus are from another part of you that can allow you to stay in the present moment, without passing judgment.
Defusion is the state when you can let your thoughts play in the background, like a radio that you’re not really listening to. You know that the music is playing, but you don’t have to listen unless you like the song. In other words, if the thought is helpful and is going to help you live a life you value then you tune in and pay attention to it. If the thought is unhelpful, then you just let it be without focusing on it.
As Harris explained earlier, human minds have evolved for survival, not happiness. Therefore, a lot of your thoughts are really warnings about things that may do you harm, reminders of bad memories, or criticisms about yourself. He calls this “Radio Doom and Gloom” in this chapter. Most “positive thinking” psychology advises you to change your thinking by broadcasting a positive radio show (aka “Radio Happy and Cheerful”) over Radio Doom and Gloom. In my experience, this type of thinking just sets up an internal duel between positive and negative thoughts. When I was in the depth of my anxiety last summer, I’d often experience mental debates where I’d argue with unpleasant thoughts by coming up with lots of reasons why the thought wasn’t true. In the end, the thought wasn’t true or false, and I certainly wasn’t accepting it; therefore, the thought would come back for another round of debate, regularly.
To practice defusion, Dr. Harris gives readers another exercise that can be done anywhere, at anytime. It’s simply called Ten Deep Breaths:
Take ten deep breaths, as slowly as possible. (You may prefer to do this with your eyes closed.) Now focus on the rise and fall of your rib cage and the air moving in and out of your lungs… Now let any thoughts and images come and go inthe background, as if they were cars passing by outside your house. When a new thought or image appears, briefly acknowledge its presence, as if you were nodding at a passing motorist… You may find it helpful to silently say to youself, “Thinking,” whenever a thought or image appears.
From time to time a thought will capture your attention; it will “hook you” and “carry you away” so that you lose track of the exercise. The moment you realize you’ve been hooked, take a second to notice what distracted you; then gently “unhook” yourself and focus on your breathing.
This process of unhooking myself from thoughts was transformative! I’d previously given my thoughts to much power and importance. Being able to accept a thought without having to struggle with it, prove it wasn’t true, or otherwise reason it away, has been fundamental to my growth and awakening.
As I reread this chapter, it occurred to me that the thinking self and observing self align with the struggle of control versus trust. When you are thinking, judging, and planning you are striving to control your inner experience. This state leads to anxiety and that phenomenon of being “somewhere else” mentally. In contrast, the observing self is able to accept what is given and be present in the moment. The concept of surrendering versus striving was significant for me. And ultimately, because of my faith, this state of accepting, being present, and ceasing striving meant that I was trusting in the Lord for everything. I imagine that without faith in God, it would be much more difficult to embrace the concept of surrendering.