Generally, our good thoughts fuel our progress in the right direction and we are able to overcome edgy thoughts, and lazy or impractical impulses. But there are times when our mind is our worst enemy, dragging us towards compulsions, addiction, depression, anxiety and other unwanted habits. We try to impose our willpower but our mind, like a rebellious child, asserts its independence and continues misbehaving.
Whether we are resisting the urge for an ice cream sundae, or the next shot of whiskey, trying to stop habitual rage, or trying to get up off the couch to mow the lawn, we realize that controlling our mind presents extraordinary challenges. We also feel helpless when we try to control our emotions. Even when we wish we could control our feelings, we continue to suffer from relentless fear, worry, jealousy, depression and so on.
We believe our mind should submit to simple logic and self-control, and are confused and shocked when we and others fail to live up to these basic rules. While we recognize that forces other than logic and willpower are at work in our mind, we don’t understand these forces and usually overlook or minimize them.
How to change and grow
Once we decide to learn more about the workings of our mind, we need guidance to see beyond old patterns. In our culture, we get little training or experience to help us understand what we see and hear when we peer within ourselves. Fortunately, there are teachings, as old as recorded history, that can help us make sense of our internal world. These teachings take us directly to the laboratory of our own mind where we discover for ourselves our mind’s basic operating principles.
Most religions include instructions for some form of meditation, but the eastern religious teachings of yoga and Buddhism convey some of the most direct, detailed instructions. The ancient practice of yoga teaches us to still our wondering thoughts by repeating a phrase, usually related to God or peace or love, over and over. We can also still the roving of our visual mind by staying focused on an image, such as an imagined candle flame.
Another type of meditation called mindfulness teaches us how to be perfectly aware of each moment. One well-known western teacher of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zin, guides his beginning students through the simple act of eating raisins. In staying focused within the experience, rather than mentally wandering forward to the future, back to the past, or out into the world, meditators draw their attention into the surprisingly powerful and healing point in time called Now.
To us westerners, accustomed to action and expression, this process of introspection and internal work seems lonely and boring. Yet it offers powerful, far-reaching benefits. By following the simple instructions of meditation, we build up a vocabulary that describes the nature of our own mind. We discover the relentless flow of thoughts, its unpredictability and its laws. In learning about our own mind, we become wiser about ourselves and about each other, and are able to respond to the events of the world with more wisdom and poise.
The work we do in meditation is, in one sense, like calisthenics for our mind, making it more supple and healthy. When we leave the confines of our meditation room, our mind is refreshed, bringing freshness and vitality to every aspect of our life.
Compassion and understanding of others
As we become more aware of our thoughts, we gain valuable insights into our mental patterns, and gradually learn how to adjust our responses. Rather than reacting impulsively, basing our reactions on old, unproductive habits, we gain a split second during which we can make more conscious choices about how we want to behave.
As we grow more aware of our patterns, we also begin to understand patterns in others. We perceive their impulses and their emotional needs, and we understand their struggle to sort out their own thoughts and feelings, just as we must do. Our awareness of their internal process heightens our empathy and reduces our sense of isolation and self-defense. We begin to realize the presence of the same transcendent reality in all beings. Hindus greet each other by saying, Namaste, which means, “I bow to the God within you.”
Our mind constantly scans for new input. Attracted by endless mental associations it wanders into dead-ends and detours. For example, a feeling of fatigue triggers off the thought, “I’m hungry.” From there we engage in a complicated debate about what to eat, whether we’ll enjoy it, how many calories it has, if our body shape meets our satisfaction, if people like us, and so on.
Fears, body sensations, images and interactions send our mind sliding down these pathways reminding us of other emotionally charged memories. Out of one remembered humiliation, or the frustration of an unfulfilled need, a whole state of mind is spawned. Thoughts, like sparks blowing in the wind, can drop anywhere, igniting the burning flames of misdirected emotion and action.
Key to satisfaction is focus
When our mind wanders, we feel scattered and bored, and feel pressured to get moving so we can feed our mind’s need for fascination. Hopping around from one thing to another, we land on things we don’t enjoy or even want, creating worries, compulsions, anger, and blame. Many of our most distressing moments come when our unfocused mind fixates on something that makes us miserable.
On the other hand, our most satisfying moments come when we’re focused on invigorating goals. When we fall in love our mind is drawn into focus on one person, and we feel lifted, and even intoxicated. And when we’re working on a creative project, or trying to achieve an important goal we feel the rewards of intensely channeling and sustaining our energy.
Orienting our lives to find sustained relief
Most of us try to organize our lives to provide enough focus to satisfy our roving mind. Fire fighters, police, soldiers and racecar drivers may look for danger. Doctors and nurses look for the intense focus of serving others, while engineers look for the intensity of solving problems. Each of us seeks the release of focused activity, even if it’s the attraction of watching an intense movie, because it distracts us from our mental wanderings. While these activities satisfy us, they are dependent on external events. Once the event is over, we need to look for another one, hoping it will have the power to gather our attention.
We all naturally try to organize our lives around focusing activities but we don’t always realize our own underlying motivation. So when we lose focus we become bored or edgy or depressed. We may seek thrills or other shocking ways to recapture our focus. And if we try to increase our involvement in our focusing activity, we may neglect other areas of our life. For example, an artist may become so enraptured in the process of creating that she forgets to take care of herself, or a workaholic may forget to take care of his family. We could gain much more satisfaction over our own internal state by learning to work directly with our need for focus.
Prayer and meditation
In the west we generally think of religions as providing ideas to bind us with God, and organizations to help us bind our community. Religion also serves another valuable service: to gather our attention and focus it in a direction that transcends our daily worries.
Throughout history, religions have offered a variety of ways to distract us from our self involvement. Prayer, whether spoken and chanted aloud, or inwardly, replaces the wandering and worry of the mind. When prayer is practiced as a method to help us lift above our thoughts, and when it is repeated routinely, it serves the same purpose as meditation.
By focusing on prayer to the exclusion of other thoughts, we bring our attention inside, away from the endless distractions of the world. Since we direct our prayers with effort and choice, and because this effort doesn’t depend on external events, it teaches us the raw internal discipline of bringing our concentration onto a single point.
Most meditation traditions have grown out of this ancient desire to draw our attention inward to find transcending connection with a higher truth.
Meditation teaches us to collect our attention without the need for external actions. We gather our attention without going to work, listening to a musical masterpiece or watching a shocking movie. By learning how to create this focus in our mind, we learn mental skills that give us relief from our woes, but also can apply this skill of focus to increase our ability to accomplish tasks.
Meditation shows us how to focus the mind despite the wanderings of our thoughts. By exercising our mind’s focusing skill, we learn how to evade distractions, so we can gather our attention into sharp focus.
Learning to focus becomes a powerful tool that helps us achieve satisfaction and peace. Through this process, we help calm our constant thought-stream. We become more adept at understanding ourselves, and can more quickly spot and weed out patterns that bother us.
With practice we learn how to calm our mental chatter. Gradually the rough edges of old habits wear smooth, and the powerful pull of distractions grows more manageable. In this stillness we open ourselves up to a wellspring of soulful energy, unblocked by fears, anxieties and unruly desires. We feel vitalized by a directed strength we never knew we had. Our focused energy inspires brilliant glimpses of clarity and insight. Far from stopping the mind, we learn to untangle it, and gradually we comprehend our inner and outer circumstances with greater maturity and wisdom.
By investigating what lies behind the curtain of our mind’s endless chatter, we observe a fascinating and curious fact. There is a self, an “I” who observes our own thoughts. Who is this person who is sitting in meditation observing our mental state? By allowing ourselves to experience that “I,” we touch upon the mysteries of the human condition that have intrigued deep thinkers throughout the ages. What is the soul? Where does creativity come from? What is “real” and what is a product of our own mind? By opening ourselves up to the machinery of our mind we tap into the very sources of the world’s philosophy. We can even gain glimpses of our connection with the divine.
Requires continuous renewal
The stillness of meditation is hard-won and fleeting. Because the mind is continually roving through its stores of memories, sensory impressions and desires, stillness requires continual effort. To get the most out of meditation, we must treat it as we would any desired skill. We select a particular method, learn about that method through classes and instruction, and build up a routine of consistent practice. At times we believe we understand our mind, and at other times we feel it’s a completely hopeless task.
When we understand the power, the mystery and the importance of our own internal experience, we gain a greater appreciation for the teachings of religion, and seek to uncover new deeper more spiritual dimensions of ourselves. As Christ said, “Know thy self” and Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” There is no better way to know and examine our lives than to stare inquiringly into the stream of our own mind.
See also: Beliefs, Journaling, Prayer, Religion, Self-talk, Spirituality, Soothing, Visualization
Wherever you go, there you are, mindfulness meditation in everyday living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jewish Meditation: A practical guide, by Aryeh Kaplan
The Way of the Pilgrim, author unknown
Practical Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill
Autobiography of a yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
Stages of Meditation by Dalai Lama
Be here now by Ram Dass
The World’s Religions by Huston Smith