What to do with that busy mind? Part 1
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
This is a 3-part series about working with that non-stop mind. It will hopefully give you a bunch of ideas about how to deal with one of the most common perceived obstacles to meditating. Here we go!
Probably everyone feels like their mind is spinning out of control, especially when first learning to meditate and you see first-hand how crazy our thinking can be. Our minds are designed to make lightning-quick assessments in life and death situations, and once things quiet down, our minds are then designed to keep rehashing the situation in order to figure out how to avoid it in the future. If you have a human brain, it is going to make thoughts! Plus, our modern lives are filled with stimuli and stressors, so our minds stay revved up all the time. When we try to sit still and ask our mind to quietly pay attention to something it doesn’t want to pay attention to, it is not surprising that they flip into overdrive. So much so that you may feel like you want to bash one of those fake-glass movie bottles over your head (a real glass bottle would hurt too much, and probably wouldn’t shatter into a million satisfying pieces).
It is natural to want a ‘move’ or ‘technique’ to fix that busy mind, so you can finally get the calm that all those mindfulness/spa ads promised you. But wanting a ‘technique’ shows that you are actually doing meditation just right—you are sitting there and feeling the blast furnace of your wild mind with no distractions or crutches. In fact, wanting a ‘technique’ is exactly the type of habit of mind that meditation gets you to recognize: you are wanting something to be different than it is. Which, of course, tells the mind that something is wrong, so it jumps right in and starts thinking even more. So, as impossible as it sounds, meditation is about learning to be with things as they are and not how you want them to be. If anything, that busy mind is giving you a great mental workout—a real chance to build your concentration and equanimity as you try to sit with it. Even if you only have a couple of microseconds of recognizing that your awareness is much larger than that busy mind, those are microseconds of awakening. Celebrate!
You can also take a little pressure off yourself by remembering that the goal of mindfulness isn’t to calm the mind. That is a pleasant side-effect that tends to happen more and more over time, and it can be what draws people to the practice in the first place. The real idea is to just see clearly what the mind is doing, regardless of what that happens to be. That clarity in turn begins to allow you to make choices that lead to greater peace and ease.
This is why mentors often answer questions about a busy mind with something irritating like: “Try to just be with it.” But that really is ideal advice. Then most teachers will follow up with: “Be patient and trust in the practice.” Which is also incredibly true (and equally irritating, especially early in your meditation career). Now, if you can actually do those things--sit with it patiently and trust in the practice--that is great. You can stop reading right now.
If you are still reading, the other thing to realize is that there is this subtle but incorrect message in meditation training that “Quiet mind good, busy mind bad.” Yes, we all know that it is pleasant to not have a voice in our head yammering all the time, but if you really internalize the ‘goal’ of quieting the mind, you will end up at war with your mind 24/7 because minds generate thoughts like the stomach secretes acid. And there are two problems with this. First, if you expect a quiet mind and it doesn’t happen, you may give up on the practice. Second, it can easily become yet another way to beat up on yourself: “I can’t get my mind to shut up—I suck at meditation and I’ll never feel better.” So, again, try to release yourself from the expectation of making your mind quiet with every sit.
Having said all that, there is no question that a frantic mind can be really hard to deal with; it can be as uncomfortable as physical pain and be a real stumbling block, especially when you are just starting. So it does help to have a few tools. This post will go over some ways to help you build a framework around a busy mind so you are less controlled by both that mind and your aversion towards it.
First, always remember to take care of yourself. If your mind is spinning because you are in a hurtful situation or very dark place, do what you have to do to ensure your safety. Call a friend, go for a walk, seek professional help, call the appropriate hotline—whatever it takes to address a dangerous problem that is manifesting as a frantic, worried mind.
But let’s assume you aren’t in such dire straits. What are some of your options?
One thing is to proceed gently if you are trying to meditate after a really difficult experience, like a fight with your partner, or a scary diagnosis, or worries about a child. Unless you have been meditating for a while, all you may end up doing is recycling the fear and worry. Meditation can be a wonderful resource to find your inner wisdom in such situations, but you may want some one-on-one advice if you are new to the practice and are trying to deal with the really bad stuff that life (and your mind) can throw at you. And remember, meditation is just one tool in your toolbox. If it isn’t working, you have lots of others: socialization, service, spirituality, nature, journaling, therapy, etc. Don’t put all your hopes into any one thing, including mindfulness.
A quick way to tell if you are perseverating on something that is making you miserable in your meditation--rather than making progress--is to note how you are feeling. Meditation, as they say, is simple but not easy. You should feel at times that you are having to put some real effort into it. But if you are coming out of your meditation stressed out and feeling worse, you need to re-assess what you are doing. Get some advice and maybe try again when you aren’t so distraught.
Another way of looking at the busy mind is captured in the book The Mindful Way Through Depression, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale and Zindel Segal. This quote really lays it out:
“It’s only natural to think that the work of meditation is being interrupted when the mind wanders here, there, and everywhere. Yet it is actually at this point that the meditation practice becomes really interesting and vital. Each moment in which the mind takes off gives us one more opportunity to become more aware of when we are slipping (or have already slipped) out of the being mode and back into the doing mode. It allows us to become more aware of the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that carry us away in those moments. Happily, such occasions happen so often that we will have countless opportunities to witness the seething pressure of the doing mind, perhaps perceiving it with greater clarity than ever before, uncomfortable as that may sometimes be. These occasions also provide us, crucially, with valuable opportunities to cultivate the skills of releasing ourselves from the doing mode and returning to the more mindful being mode.”
OK. That's it for part one. Check out Part 2 for more...