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  • Writer's picturejon walker

What to do with that busy mind? Part 3.

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

Here is Part 1 and here is Part 2.

If you do try to hold your wild mind in awareness, it can help to expand your meditative focus beyond the breath. For instance, you can try focusing on the entire body, or sounds, or the people and spaces around you. This will allow the meditation to surround your busy mind, because your thoughts and emotions are just actors on a small stage within the greater space of your awareness. The teacher Yael Shy has a good way of putting it: “Do not try to stop the thoughts—just keep imagining them bouncing around in a larger, more spacious environment. You will not die of restlessness, and it will pass in time.” As you practice this, you will realize that your awareness really is much larger than anything going on in your thinking mind. That is a powerful realization, and it tends to come when you make the effort to sit with the rough stuff and see what happens.

Here’s yet another thing to try, and it is related to how meditation is used to help people with chronic pain or psychological trauma. In these situations, the invitation is to find something in your experience that is still and at peace. This could be a part of your body—often your hands or feet—or something in the environment, or even the subtle pause between exhalation and inhalation. You can then use that still place as a home base, going gently back and forth between that base and observing your active mind. If the mind gets too crazy, just return to home base and stay there as long as you want. You can build your ability to be with a busy mind by going back and forth like this. The mind tends to eventually settle, and even if it doesn’t, this is a great way to build your ability to ‘sit with it’. By the way, the technical term for this back and forth move is pendulation.

Another option is to try an object of focus that you create by doing a simple action. An example of this would be gently tapping one finger into the palm of the other hand. Sometimes this kind of “active” anchor requires enough brain power to distract the mind from its busyness. Kind of like tossing a rambunctious puppy a bone so it will go chew on it in the corner and give you a little break!

Sometimes you can build a mental framework around that crazy mind that helps you accept it with greater ease. Think about how amazing this thing called consciousness is. We have no idea how some fat and water and proteins in your skull turn into that thing you call you. Our universe is vast and mysterious, but that voice in your head is the most mysterious thing of all—even if all it wants to do is think about what’s for dinner. See if you can find a little gratitude and wonder at that monkey mind; maybe even a little joy that you can sit there and watch it do its thing. Meditating with this understanding is kind of like having a ringside seat at some cosmic miracle--like an ancient quasar--but you don’t even need to leave your home.

Another framework relates to our human heritage. Do you think that evolution has carefully preserved our maniac minds just to drive us nuts when we meditate? Nope. What you are directly experiencing is our biology’s response to the need for immediate situational analysis when you stumble on a saber-tooth tiger. It’s just that our lizard brain can’t tell the difference between that tiger and, say, a cranky co-worker. So we stay in saber-tooth tiger mode all day. Although a busy mind may be annoying when you try to follow your breath, it really is your personal link to hundreds of thousands of years of careful crafting by nature. It is like holding up a mirror in front of a mirror and seeing that infinite iteration back to our distant ancestral past. Wow. Of course, the goal here is not to cogitate on this while meditating, but rather to just use this concept as a background to begin to accept and even appreciate your busy mind rather than wanting to shove a sock in it.

And see if you can bring a tiny smile to you face as you try to ride out the waves of a very frantic mind. It is so important to work with these issues with lightness and a sense of humor: “Oh, here’s that Category 5 thought-hurricane in my head again. Welcome to the party.” If you can start by smiling just a little bit at that, you may find that it is easier to smile more and more over time as you catch the mind flailing around. And that is a great side-route to bring just a little self-compassion and kindness to yourself—perhaps one of the most important skills to cultivate in a mindfulness practice. (More on this below.) We can learn to be with a busy mind much better if we meet it with acceptance and gentleness than if we meet it with frustration and irritation.

Here’s yet another way of dealing with this: You know about noting—when you recognize your mind has wandered and you mentally label it as “thinking” and then return to the breath or whatever anchor you are using. That is useful, but when the mind is really crazy, trying to label thoughts can be like drinking from a fire hydrant—too much too fast. If that is the case, you can try saying the labelling out loud. Drawing the speech parts of your brain into the meditative mix can gather the mind in a way that can be very powerful—which explains why some meditative traditions are very much about chanting and singing. As an everyday example of how this can work, researchers have shown that if you are looking for something, it is easier to find it if you say the name of the object out loud as you search; it helps your concentration and focus. So it only seems natural to try this when you are meditating and feel like you have lost your mind!

Another option is to shorten your meditation time. If you feel like your mind is the Hulk and you are going to get thrown across town, maybe just dip into the meditative space for a few minutes, or even less. You’ll get some positive reinforcement and avoid getting bulldozed. The classic 3-minute breathing space meditation developed by the creators of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy works very well in this case.

Although shortening the time can be useful, recognize that there is a counterintuitive move you can try: double your meditation time. Yes, that doesn’t sound like fun when your mind is creating one of those Tasmanian devil whirlwinds inside your skull. But sometimes it can help to bite the meditative bullet and sit with it longer than you are used to. By meditating longer, your mind might wear itself out and begin to calm down (insert the time-honored ‘glass of muddy water’ metaphor here). Extending the sit can be a real ju-jitsu move that allows you to intuitively understand what “just be with it” is all about, and to understand it in a way that is more powerful than a boatload of meditation teachers lecturing you about it.

Finally, there is perhaps the most important move of all: remembering to just be kind, gentle and compassionate to yourself when you feel you are stuck with that buzzsaw of a mind. We all know what it is like to offer caring and compassion to those around us, but we all seem to make some sort of spiteful exception when it comes to being compassionate with ourselves; we are much more likely to fire up that judgmental inner critic rather than kindness. So see if you can counter that tendency with some good ol’ self-compassion as suggested by the wizards in the Mindful Self-Compassion world. Putting your hand over your heart in a supportive way, and then acknowledging that this is a moment of suffering—a moment of suffering experienced by literally anyone who meditates. And then offering yourself some kindness, like, “It’s ok, we’ve got this” or “Hey, I’m here for you.” This is the classic Self-Compassion Break, something that no meditator should be without as they explore their rowdy mind. Here is a link to check out this valuable tool and plenty of others.

Ok. That’s about 3,000 more words than I meant to write on what to do when you feel your mind is out of control. Experiment for yourself and see what works for you.

But I have to circle back to the beginning to remind you to look at your motivation for trying these suggestions. If you are doing them to get from Point A to Point B—from a crazy to a calm mind—you may well end up disappointed. That is because anything that you use as a ‘technique’ may work for a while, but when things get difficult, the technique will fail to provide the relief you seek. Plus, by ‘wanting’ things to be other than they are, you are telling your mind that something is wrong, and then it has no other option than to start thinking more! And if you then decide that none of this stuff works because you didn’t get immediate relief, you may walk away from the practice. As Bill Murray said in Ghostbusters: that would be bad.

Remember, it’s not about having ‘techniques’ as much as it is about learning to accept what is happening right now. Striving to be something different by using a mind trick just leads to more striving. Try these things and see if they help you get your awareness around your wonderfully busy mind. If they do, great, and if they don’t, that’s great too. It just means you are learning to be with and appreciate what is between your ears no matter what it is doing. And, over time, you will realize that is a very good thing indeed--the peace and serenity that we are all looking for tend to show up only when we stop trying to make them happen.

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