We are continually caught up in an endless stream of thinking. The momentum pulls us along like rushing whitewater, offering us no choice other than to be carried along for the ride. Our lives seem so cluttered with things to think about, there is no space for anything else. Yet, pay close attention next time you get “swept up,” and you’ll see these events are only occurring at the moment they are unfolding. When thoughts surrounding these events project us into the past and future, we are disillusioned into seeing our lives only as a collection of events and “problems.”
How often are you engaged in this stream of thought?
Many of us are unaware of the separation between our self and the thought we are experiencing. An idea pops into our head, and we instantly identify with it as “ours.” This habit of identifying with thoughts can cause suffering for ourselves and those around us. If we are completely identified with our mental positions, we are essentially slaves to whatever our brains tell us. For many of us, this constant chatter is self-critical and counterproductive. “You’re not good enough,” “He/she doesn’t like you,” “You’ll never be able to get it together.” Your mind will come up with just about anything, as long as it can get you involved.
How can we create more space in our minds, and cultivate clarity and well being? Here are a few ways in my experience that can help tremendously.
- As much as possible start to become aware of your mental and emotional patterns: Even if it is for a few minutes a day, take time to step away from whatever you are working on to allow yourself to “be” just as you are. If you are outside, become aware of your sense perceptions; enjoy the taste and texture of your lunch, notice the different hues of color in the trees, feel the warmth of sunlight on your arms. Whatever perception you attend to, you draw attention away from your head and into your body. Allow thoughts to arise, but notice as they come in and out of your awareness.
- Spend time exercising in nature: We can do our minds a huge favor by giving ourselves a mental “time out.” Whatever your preferred choice is; hiking, surfing, walking, running, going to the dog park–all of these are excellent. Research has shown exercise and nature have enormous benefits for the mind and body, so why not combine both? If you tend to hike particular trail repeatedly, try a new one. Breaking familiarity is a fantastic way to keep us engaged in our activities, as it employs our interest.
- Start a formal meditation practice: While there are many avenues to increase mindful awareness, meditation is the most effective at increasing our capacity to be aware. By focusing our attention on the breath, and away from our internal dialogue, we experience what stillness in our minds actually feels like, rather than a concept or idea. An analogy I learned through “Headspace,” a mobile meditation app refers to our still mind as the “blue sky,” while negative thoughts and emotions are “clouds” that are transient. As long as you can remember you are the “blue sky,” you will no longer be stuck with negative emotions or thoughts. Observe thoughts without judgment and watch them dissipate.
- Make ample time for fun and play: I know this was a huge culprit for me. By placing such high expectations and demands on myself and not leaving much room for pure enjoyment, it was a recipe for disaster. We need to allow ourselves to let go a bit. Maybe that means we’re falling short of our ideal self, that’s ok. Life happiness is not entirely centered around grinding our gears from one achievement to the next. It is always the very simple pleasures that give us joy. They happen at that moment, not in our thoughts about the future.
- Keep a regular schedule and minimize time “idling”: Being aware does not mean you’re doing nothing. Actually, much to the contrary. It means you’re holding that quiet “stillness” in the background of your mind, as you go throughout your day. If you are just starting a mindfulness practice, don’t expect to be mindful all the time, right off the bat. It takes time to develop awareness. Personally, I know that I’m still not there yet. Regarding schedules, being less busy in your life will not make you more mindful. In fact, it is better to leave little to no gaps at all throughout the day. Even plan for periods of non-doing when you practice observing or engaging in sessions of mindfulness or meditation. The key here is that is that you are planning time to be aware, rather than falling between the cracks and getting lost in your thoughts, because you got caught sitting around thinking.
Think of mindfulness as a smorgasbord of options to choose from. There is no one “right” way to practice. We all have different life situations, so pick according to what will work best for you. As you develop more awareness in you’re life, you’ll find the act of stepping out of age-old thought patterns much less arduous. Consider that undoing years of mental noise is a process and that you will feel at times that you’re not getting anywhere. That is completely normal. Be patient and compassionate with yourself. Realize that mindfulness is not an end, it is a lifelong journey of self-discovery and inquiry. See the beauty in the process and not the product.