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  • Writer's picturejon walker

What to do with that busy mind? Part 2

Updated: Oct 30, 2021

[This just jumps in from Part 1. Check that one out for context.]

It also helps to be aware of how you may be making the situation worse, especially with substances--both legal and illegal--that may be ramping up your mind. It is generally agreed that mindfulness is not enhanced by being high. But sometimes you can be doing chemicals that interfere with the process without realizing it. For instance, did you just have a robust latte? Remember that the half-life of caffeine is about 6 hours, so that double shot at 3 pm to get through the afternoon will turn into a single shot at 9 pm when you are trying to meditate (or sleep!). Maybe wait a few half-lives and start again. Or experiment with what being tired feels like—maybe see what happens if you don’t immediately go for your caffeine fix during the day. You may be surprised that your natural brain chemistry isn’t as bad as you imagine, and you don’t need to be bouncing between a caffeine high and a caffeine crash all day long. And your meditations may lose some unnecessary franticness.

Even without extra caffeine or life stress, however, the mind can still be so active that your whole body seems to be crackling with gigavolts of static electricity. That’s when you may have to bail out and go discharge that energy on Mother Earth’s gravitational field—do a run, pump some iron, clean the kitchen, whatever. Or try letting that energy out through mental means: call that friend again, do some deep journaling, or have a list of world-improving activities--like writing your congressman or helping a non-profit. Then come back to your meditation once you’ve bled off some mental steam. Harnessing that busy mind in the service of doing good is a great way to both feel better about yourself and release that mental energy so you aren’t as overwhelmed when trying to meditate.

A variation that involves physical activity is to do a series of muscle tightening and relaxation exercises at the beginning of your meditation. For instance, start with your feet and tighten them isometrically for a few breaths, and then let them relax and enjoy that releasing sensation. Then move up through the body doing the same thing with different regions. Sometimes once you’ve done this you’ve both burnt off excess energy and really dropped into awareness of the body, and that often has a collateral effect of quieting your mind.

Also, remember how you can tap into your breath. In traditional meditation, the idea is to be with your natural breath without changing it. But intentionally breathing deeply can settle the body and mind. A good example is to extend the exhalation, which can stimulate the vagus nerve and pull in some calm from the parasympathetic nervous system. Try inhaling, say, for a 4 count, then hold for a 2 count, and then exhale for a 6 or 8 count (you can change the numbers depending on what works for you). Go slow so you don’t hyperventilate. You may find that doing three to ten breaths like this can begin to quiet a stormy mind and restless body.

Another option is to remember that you don’t have to just sit there in order to meditate. If your mind--and therefore your body--is restless, you can always do a standing or walking meditation. You can also do a formal movement meditation, such as yoga or tai chi, and then try sitting. For that matter, you don’t need to sit perfectly still to mediate, either. I often find myself gently rocking during meditation, and that can help you be with your busy mind.

Also take a moment to notice what is occupying your busy mind. See if it keeps returning to certain issues--like rehashing what your boss said for the 47th time. Note that emotions can be powerful drivers of repetitive thoughts, yet you may not recognize them because you are so carried away by the words and images in your head. See if there is a difficult emotion underneath all the recurrent chatter.

There are a few ways to do this:

  1. You can bail out of the meditative space and bring in some good old Sherlock Holmes analysis to see what is going on. There will always be something interesting that will turn up—hurt feelings, unmet needs, self-criticism--and you can then bring your mindfulness to what you find.

  2. You can stay in a meditative stance and use an approach known as reflection, where you drop a question into your mind--like a pebble into a pond--and see what arises. Don’t try to intellectually answer the question; instead, just notice how the question itself makes you feel. See if you have any responses at levels below the discursive mind. Good questions include: “What would I be feeling if I wasn’t angry or frustrated about this situation?” or just, “What do I need right now?” Hint: if you keep coming up with answers that insist that someone else has to change, you might want to see if there is some deeper worry or need of yours that is being triggered by the other person’s behavior. Then bring some self-compassion to yourself when you find that sore spot.

  3. You can bring in the RAIN acronym (recognize, allow, investigate and nurture). Drop into your heart area and see if you can find an emotion driving the repetitive thoughts and then follow the steps to investigate and detoxify it. (There isn’t room to fully cover RAIN in this post. Here is a link to further explore this thanks to Tara Brach.)

  4. A variation on this is to recognize that there is a reason your mind is so busy talking to you: it wants to tell you something! The mediator Tammy Lenski has a great approach called “Chairman of the Board”, and it basically involves stopping and gently asking your mind what it wants you to hear. Then once your mind has said its piece, reflect back what was said and ask if you have it correctly. And then listen to your mind fully to see if there is anything else. And then thanking your mind for the input, and just maybe it will calm down. Here is a link that fully explains this cool suggestion. A different way of doing this--especially if you find your mind very busy prior to meditating--is to take a moment to write down the thoughts that are coming up. This recognizes that the busy mind just wants to be heard, and you may find some useful insights if you mindfully listen to it in this way before, well, mindfully meditating.

  5. Finally, recognize that our minds can get so tied up in old patterns that we can be stuck and not realize we’re stuck—other than repetitive thoughts and a deep sense of unease. Our discursive minds love to ruminate like crazy when that happens, as captured by this wonderful quote by David Bohm: “The reason we fail to see the source of our problems is that the means by which we try to solve them is the source.” If that is happening, consider working with a mental health professional who has the objectivity and experience to see where you are stuck. Indeed, sometimes the combo of a mindfulness practice and a therapist can allow rapid recognition of all kinds of unhelpful mental habits that run so deep that we don’t see them on our own.

Another option, besides looking for underlying emotions, is to just surrender to the wildness and let it rip. There obviously isn’t anything you can do about it, so just bring your mindfulness to what it is like to have these thoughts spinning around. Try to be curious about them from a distance--see if you can bring a quality of equanimity and balance to how you experience them. Be careful not to get caught up in the thoughts when your mind is like that, though. Those thoughts are like the tentacles of a giant squid--trying to grab you and entangle you--and you’ll only end up feeding the monster if you get carried away by them without realizing it.

That's it for Part 2. Carry on, if you wish, to Part 3.

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