I rush for where
the thistles and moss
will absorb the sounds
of my racing mind
and where the thudding
of my heart
can run alongside
those of the others
escaping their enemies,
running toward survival,
until we are one organism,
moving madly, at first,
and then, as though
in spontaneous awareness
of an internal need,
we pause, and slow,
and it’s the greatest
silence we have ever known,
sonorous and pure,
and we can hear
the ladybug flap her wings,
though she decides to stay,
and the grass is heaving
its gratitude for the earth
sustaining it from below.
The birds slice through sky
to nestle in the treetops,
their every movement
conducing a forest symphony
for our delighted ears.
Our own heartbeats
are making sweet music,
calm, rhythmic now,
because we, too, have stayed,
one for the other,
under the watchful moon
and the playful sun.
– Tammy Takahashi
You know them when you see them: people who radiate joy, don’t sweat the small stuff, naturally attract people to them and who seem to be in a pretty constant state of peace.
What do these people have in common? Well, they’ve all worked hard to tame the beast within and turn their minds into their greatest allies. For the rest of us, life might look a little bit like this: worrying, regretting past actions, stressing out about potential future events, spinning out of control, retreating to worlds of fantasy and distraction … sound familiar?
You don’t want to feel like this. You might be thinking about starting meditation and mindfulness practices, to become more Zen, but don’t know how where to start. As you work up to your Namaste, then, it can be helpful to try a few practical things aimed at familiarizing yourself with the lifelong companion that is your mind, which you definitely want on your team!
1: Recognize that you are not your mind.
Here’s a telltale sign: you can actually observe your thoughts and feelings as they come up, which means you are not inextricably bound with them. This awareness is truly a revolution, and the first step toward empowering yourself to begin the work of calming the mind down and getting it on your side.
“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.” – C.G. Jung
2: Become a witness of your mind.
Your mind is capable of extraordinary things once you learn to take the reins. One of the main purposes of meditation is to connect to the present moment by accessing your inner witness. Rest quietly and become aware of your body and immediate surroundings. Observe thoughts as they arise and slip away; they will do this over and over. As you distance yourself from your thoughts and feelings, you’ll start to wonder you we attach so deeply to ephemera that come and go like clouds in the sky.
“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” – attributed to Buddha
3: Be careful what you put into your mind.
In some ways, the mind is very simple: it builds on what you feed it. If you funnel negativity into it, it will soon be hard not to feel negative, because the mind – which is not your enemy, just doing its job – adjusts and happily works with what it’s given. This is known in neuroscience as “plasticity” : our brains work with new stimuli no matter how old we are. Letting the good stuff in will actually, if slowly, make it easier for you to feel positive over time.
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” – Mahatma Gandhi
4: Explore your mind like it’s a foreign country
The best kind of travel is all about being curious, having no expectations, and being ready to be dazzled, even enlightened by what we find. Take the time to be in stillness with your mind and contemplate the thoughts and feelings you find there; they have a lot to teach you about your coping patterns and how you have come to view the world over time. In short: discover yourself!
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” – Dalai Lama
5: Distinguish between knowledge and wisdom
Knowledge involves learning facts and developing the intellect. You might come to realize that accumulating knowledge does not make you feel any happier. Wisdom, on the other hand, involves learning from our life’s experiences about what is meaningful so we can live our best possible lives with heart. Learning things is great, but acquiring wisdom is invaluable.
‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.’ – Lord Alfred Tennyson
6: Embrace compassion, the gateway to happiness
As we focus more on wisdom than gathering information, we come to understand whey we are really here: to benefit others and know deep within that we don’t want anyone to suffer, as we ourselves don’t want to suffer. Cultivating empathy compassion through meditation and contemplation is one of the best things we can do by encouraging the mind to serve our purpose of being agents of good in a world that badly needs it.
“More smiling, less worrying. More compassion, less judgment. More blessed, less stressed. More love, less hate.” – Roy T. Bennett
7: Seek truths that thought cannot produce
The rational mind computes, analyzes, discriminates and assesses very well, but left to its own devices, it does not naturally guide you toward greater consciousness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get there! The mind just need some coaxing. Attempt to remember your dreams. Comb your mind for things people have said to you in the past that struck you as wise. Don’t dismiss insights; write them down. Embrace synchronicities that seem to fall on your lap. Recognize wisdom and deeper truth for what it is and let it support your conscious life.
“To understand the immeasurable, the mind must be extraordinarily quiet, still.” – Jiddu Krishmanurti
8: Listen to your heart and your gut and let them win
Contrary to conventional belief, it’s been shown that reason and emotions are not two passing trains in the night. Our emotions actually guide our rational and cognitive functioning to a large extent, and our “gut” area has come be known as our second brain. Don’t rationalize your gut instincts away: take the time to listen to the messages you receive from your body and inner wisdom.
“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.” – Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being
9: Tend to your mind like a garden
Before we start on the garden, it looks like a mess of jumbled weeds and dried clumps of earth. Who wants to go there? But with effort, you end up with a gorgeous kingdom of your creation, full of beauty, nutrients and wonder. So it is with the mind – with a little pruning, love and care, persistently attended to every day, it can grow into a gorgeous and fruitful splendor.
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch
10: Develop equanimity
Equanimity means regarding the things you experience without judgment. Stop liking things so much that you can’t live without them, and stop focusing energy on despising things, which only strengthens their iron grip on you. Practice observing your reactions to things, and notice how naming and being aware of these reactions helps make them less intense over time.
“It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.” – Osho
11: Allow wonder in
Little kids are so full of awe at everything they encounter – we can be that way again too! The world is really a playground, and we are infinitely lucky to be in it. Life isn’t always going to be easy, but you can access that innocent, childlike wonder anytime by opening eye and heart to the magic all around us. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for it!
“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” – Walt Streightiff
12: Slow down and be silent
We’ve all experienced the overwhelm that comes with trying to be productive all the time. It’s time to stop burning yourself out. Carve time in the day to spend time with loved ones, enjoy the rewards of your labor and reflect on your life. There’s a reason we’re afraid of silence; here we are forced to confront ourselves, and it’s not always pretty. But in coming face to face with our demons, you can overcome them and ease through to peace and harmony.
“Silence is the language of Om. We need silence to be able to reach our Self. Both internal and external silence is very important to feel the presence of that supreme Love.” – Amit Ray
13: Know that you don’t have to be defined by your stories.
Humans have an amazing capacity for storytelling and to create identities based on the stories we tell. It’s key to keep in mind that in choosing which stories you tell and whih memories you latch onto, you are reinforcing certain aspects of your identity, for better or worse. Stories are fluid and can always be rewritten.
“A student, filled with emotion and crying, implored, “Why is there so much suffering?”
Suzuki Roshi replied, “No reason.” – Shunryu Suzuki
14: Replace “what ifs” for “thank you’s”
One of the “best” ways we waste time is to pine over mistakes and wonder, what if we’d done things differently? Well, we didn’t! The life we are living now is a product of the decisions we’ve made, and the best antidote to regret is gratitude. Express thanks for all the million ways in which your life is awesome and worth celebrating, and more of that is bound to come
“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” – Maya Angelou
15: Take a walk in nature, be wild and write a poem about it
You don’t have to literally write a poem, but tapping into your creativity is also tapping into your nature. Nature and creation go hand in hand. Humans are among nature’s most awe-inspiring creations, and so much of the discord we feel comes from how far we’ve strayed from our roots. We are designed to think and feel more clearly when aligned with nature’s rhythms. Doing things like breathing clean forest air, sitting under trees and using our natural-born creativity – whether you think you are “good” or not – will do wonders to restore the mind and get it working in your best interest.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” – John Muir
Why do I think I always have to be getting somewhere?
Why do I think that the world isn’t strong enough to bear the burden of my shadow, so that I have to hide it and pretend everything is okay?
Why do I think the worst thing I can do is let people down, at the expense of my own truth?
Why am I scared I will never truly belong to the communities I love and respect so much?
Our thoughts can be dizzying, terrifying things.
If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself more than once getting dragged into a very deep and intense storyline produced by none other than your mind. It may have started with a simple nagging feeling, and rather than shrugging it off, you’ve let yourself get absorbed in a drama featuring such rambunctious characters as Doubt, Fear, Guilt, Hopelessness, Confusion and Thwarted Dreams.
While these journeys are scarier than any horror film, we accept them as fact with alarming ease.
We take them to be natural extensions of “who we are” and “how life is”, and because of this, they keep returning with a vengeance.
In Buddhism, there is the belief that we will face the same situations in life until we’ve finally learned the lesson. We’ll meet people and situations that trigger us is in similar ways, until we finally get it. If we think that “getting it” means blaming people because we know it’s their fault and avoiding our challenges because we “know” they are impossible, we are on the fast track to a sequel situation.
All this is because our minds are so good at taking us along our egoistic paths and abetting our desire to avoid confronting our deepest and truest selves.
It’s not very often that we take the time to “think about thinking,” or “how we think.” We tend to assume that our thoughts are merely an extension of us, and cannot lead us astray. We don’t really question the idea that we are our minds, so we don’t critically engage with what is happening as they tear loose and run wild.
We also know that we are simply not happy a lot of the time. We feel frustrated, dissatisfied, defeated, thrown for a loop, maybe backed into a corner.
When this happens, our first instinct is to leap right into the realm of why and how.
“Why has this problem occurred, and how can I fix it?”
Then we scramble, rationalizing our behaviour, finding ways to blame the perceived culprit of the problem, or else attacking the problem with apparent, potential solutions that are fuelled by our certainty that we’ve failed before and are doomed to fail again.
“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” ~ Einstein
Problem solving is a skill we’ve developed as humans and has been key to our survival. Learning how to get from point A to point B and how to procure food and shelter, for instance, are great instances of how our thinking minds have been our ally.
However, when it comes to our more “negative” emotions and sense of being stuck, our highly evolved ability to problem-solve actually gets in the way and leads us to a dead end.
Because we are perceiving these things as “problems” in the first place.
Through meditation and mindfulness practice, we come to see that perceived problems are simply interior states, reactions of our bodies minds and spirits to our external circumstances and our habituated ways of being in the world due to our past behaviours and conditionings.
Rather than “solve,” we learn to “sit with” and accept, and understand the transient nature of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We learn that gently regarding what is going on within us with respect but non-attachment lightens the heaviness we associate with problems, and allows us a more compassionate attitude toward our selves and the situation at hand.
We learn that “shrugging it off” does not mean avoidance, but the ability to observe how we are feeling, and watch as the feeling both arises and passes away. We even realize that problems are actually opportunities to learn and grow, which makes them the exact opposite of problems.
I’ve studied cinema for many years, and found that we can either be so absorbed and emotionally involved in a movie that we have lost all critical faculties, or that we can learn to pull back, and examine how the filmmakers constructed the film so that it could have such a powerful pull and effect on viewers.
It’s fascinating to realize that the same can be said of our minds.
We can learn to see our minds as constructions that can be understood and dismantled so that their power over our true nature can be lessened.
Sitting down with the intention of watching our thoughts appear and disappear, we see that these fickle entities are not the foundations of our identity, and from there, our opportunities to contemplate who we have become and how we can free ourselves are virtually endless.
We all know the credo, “you create your own reality,” which tells us that the contents of our mind give birth to the world we perceive around us.
But doesn’t something sit uneasy here? There is a lot of over-simplification with this idea—a favourite among the self-help books—that doesn’t seem to jive with how we feel most of the time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because the times when we do feel happy and at ease— when it seems we are able to manifest the life we want—also serve to bring the other, less glorious times into sharper focus. We need to account for both tendencies in our lives if we want to have a more even-keeled relationship with the world, don’t we?
If it was as simple as “manifest anything, right now!” we would all have everything we’ve ever wanted, right? I’m talking about the spectrum running from an affordable trip around the world and time in which to do it, to eternal happiness and immortality (or whatever else floats your boat; the first three, at least, float mine!).
The ideas behind “create your own reality” are good ones. Taking steps to manage how we live our lives is empowering and valuable. Our attitude towards a person, event or situation very much impacts the outcome of these relationships.
But we need to be mindful of how many factors are at play when we consider our attitudes and our relationships, and just how much we have to work through to achieve harmony between self and world. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and contentment, enlightenment and a life governed by freedom are much more difficult to achieve than Rome was.
Patience is our greatest ally.
It takes more than well-wishing and “thinking it” to get there. Our beliefs are very important, but they need to run deeper than the more superficial layers of our mind. We can’t cheat ourselves into believing positive things. We have to believe it way-deep down to our proverbial (and actual) bones. We have to cause change from the inside out, which means we have to learn how to acquaint ourselves with—and then take charge of—our deepest and darkest shadows, so that the light can filter through to our daily reality. No easy task, but not an impossible one!
“Wake up in yourself a will to conquer. Not a mere will in the mind but a will in the very cells of your body. Without that you can’t do anything; you may take a hundred medicines but they won’t cure you.” ~ Mirra Alfassa (or “The Mother”, as she was known to followers of Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo)
The best thing that can happen to us on this road through life, I’ve come to believe, is to stumble upon the idea that we want to be truly free from suffering in its most profound forms, and to dig deep to find the motivation to do something about it. We may not have to dig at all. It may come as inspiration, intuition, or in any number of ways, if it’s the right time.
But then, we have to do the work, and this is where patience comes in. The seed that gave us our inspiration to begin the long haul toward taming the beasts within is one we should never stop believing in and tending to, no matter how grueling the road, or how small our progress seems.
Our bodies, minds and ‘spirit’—or whatever you want to call that place inside where intuition comes from—operate at different speeds.
As a tiny example, we really want to quit coffee and be rid of its monstrous hold. This doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need a few days to physically “reset” as a caffeine-free entity, or that our minds don’t need even longer to understand that it’s okay to be a human who doesn’t consume coffee while reading morning emails or hanging out with friends in the afternoon.
On a much grander scope, the healing process—and any move toward growth, I believe, involves healing—affects us on many different levels at once, and we need to let each aspect of us handle the changes taking place in their own way.
I might want to forgive someone. But another part of me—one that shows up as my racing heart, for example, or the aching pit in my stomach—that precedes thought or rationalization, still wants to react with fear, repulsion, resentment…you name it.
Meditation is an amazing thing. It helps us to see that what we feel emotionally is mapped onto our physical bodies. It helps us observe and then unify our experiences so that we can understand through observation and experience how our body-mind-spirit complex maneuvers through life.
Meditation helps by bringing us to our breath and the present moment, where we can experience rather than just know that our minds and bodies are part of the same vast conglomerate.
When we “come back to the breath” we are taking our mind, which has floated anywhere from our childhood best friend to our retirement cruise, right back into our body, here and now.
Once we’re “together” like this, we can begin to access the ever-deepening layers of who we are, based on all we’ve been.
It’s a fascinating process to observe the wisdom our intuitions bring us, followed by all the rationalizations our minds make to thwart said wisdom, and how are bodies are thrown in there like the child of a very bitter divorce, always trying to catch up with what happened ten fights ago, let alone what is going on right now.
Sometimes our body, like a young child, needs to yell and say, “Stop! I’m confused and I’m hurting! Be quiet for a minute, or take the fight into another room, and let me figure out what’s happening!”
Or sometimes our bodies are springing forward, full of energy, only to be halted by the workings of the mind—our doubts, fears and habitual negative thinking.
We must be patient.
Our bodies (or minds) are just trying to catch up with the work we’re doing, as long as we are determined to do the work and with good intention, because ultimately, we’re the ones in the driver’s seat. There is nothing that is happening within us that is not a movement toward growth, despite the tricks we know how to play on ourselves.
Even in these, I truly believe, we can learn to observe and transcend.
“Once you are conscious, it means that you can distinguish and sift things, you can see which are the forces that pull you down and which help you on. And when you know the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the divine from the undivine, you are to act strictly up to your knowledge; that is to say, resolutely reject one and accept the other. The duality will present itself at every step and at every step you will have to make your choice. You will have to be patient and persistent and vigilant.” ~ The Mother