Is Your Mind a Train Wreck

Felicia (author) headshot for by her byline

Oops! I lost my train of thought! 

That happens often when we forget what we wanted to say.

Have you ever wondered where the phrase ‘train of thought’ comes from? It’s a nice
metaphor — a thought is barreling down the tracks of our minds, and then, sometimes, it
derails (“I’ve lost my train of thought!”). We each have hundreds of these trains of thought every day — our internal monologues are chugging along, in our conscious minds and deep in our subconscious.

We’re planning a dinner for the evening, thinking about an upcoming job interview, ruminating
about an embarrassing moment — all while we’re supposed to be doing something else.
Recently, I heard the expression “thought trains” and it made me think about the times I have
waited at a railroad track crossing, watching boxcar after boxcar pass by...sometimes 100 of
them! (yes, I counted them!) These ‘boxcars’ made me realize: we have thoughts like that! The
same thought that replays over and over. It may be the same thought you had yesterday, or
perhaps several days before. It is just there. You recognize it. You may even know how it plays out, and what the caboose looks like!

This is a runaway thought ......a thought train! Although we have thousands of thoughts a day, if
we take notice, we can group them into ten to twenty thought trains! These thoughts can be
grouped together; about relationships, self-opinions, job expectations, etc. Our minds have our own Grand Central Station, with thought trains that keep coming and going. It can be pretty stressful! However, it’s important to recognize that we are the locomotive. We pull the train on the desired track. And, what goes on in our minds can affect our health!

There isn’t enough time in the day to consider all our thought trains. We have to choose.
Many of us are in the habit of taking whichever thought train comes first. We just get on board,
without knowing where the train is going. How many perfectly fine mornings have been spoiled by an anxious or depressing thought train that derailed us for the next hour? When a negative thought train arrives, we sometimes can’t resist getting on board. We ride this thought train without question, as far as it will go.

But would you do this at an actual train station? Would you just show up, and walk onto the
first train that pulls up? I hope not! This would be an incredibly inefficient way to travel! And
yet, this is what we do with our thoughts. So, how do we break the habit, and start navigating our thought trains more efficiently? Meditation is the practice of sitting in that train station, eyes closed with our mind observing the thought trains coming and going. We’re not getting on any of them — we’re making a conscious decision to just let them pass.

Here’s a simple step-by-step approach: While sitting quietly with eyes closed:
 A thought train comes in.
 Identify it (“I notice I’m having the thought that…”)
 Now watch it leave, without engaging it.
 Repeat this for every thought that enters your mind (begin with only a few minutes).

This practice over time will help us detach from our thoughts. We don’t just get on the first train
that comes our way. Or, if we do board the wrong train, we recognize it and get off. Detaching
from a thought train mid-transit is an important skill to develop. So, don’t be discouraged when
your mind wanders. The more we make meditation a part of our daily routine, the more control we will have to let unproductive thought trains pass.

Increase your efficiency
Oddly enough, meditation can help us be more time efficient, especially when we are stressed
most. Gandhi summarizes it well: “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

For Gandhi, meditation was so fundamental to his productivity that he would make it a point to
meditate for longer periods of time when he had the most to do. He understood the power of
meditation to help him avoid those divergent thought trains that waste so much of our time and

Even though it’s an investment up-front, meditation can help free up more time to do the things
that matter most. We don’t have to meditate as much as Gandhi to see the benefits. Five, ten, or
fifteen minutes daily can be enough to increase our focus and control our thought processes — to help us find the thought train we want to be on.

Meditation isn’t a cure-all. But it is a valuable tool. Our reality is affected by our perceptions,
which means the thought trains we choose can have a major influence on our quality of life.
Negative thought trains create negative thinking patterns that are reinforced with more
energy every time you get on that train. If you’re a person that constantly gets on the wrong
train of negativity, and you’re someone that believes negative things about yourself, this energy
will be directed into your life.

People can become ill because of constant negative thoughts. Anxiety, chronic stress, and
depression are linked to negative thought trains. Negative thinking has a detrimental effect on
the body, mind, and quality of life. We must learn to discipline ourselves to select the ‘right’ train so that our lives will be positive and fruitful. Visualize your mind as the garden we spoke about last month, planting seeds of flowers or weeds, positive or negative thoughts, and watch them grow.

“Real, constructive mental power lies in the creative train of thought that shapes your destiny,
and your hour-by-hour mental conduct produces power for change in your life. Develop a train
of thought on which to ride. The nobility of your life as well as your happiness depends upon the direction in which that train of thought is going.“  Dr. Lawrence Peter (1972). The Peter
Prescription: How to Make Things Go Right

We have the power to choose a train that will make life more stressful, thereby, bringing on
illness; or the train that takes us to the road of peace, health, and wellness.

Take back your power! You are in control of your thoughts, your life, and your happiness!