There is nothing wrong with a busy mind. The human brain entertains thousands thoughts each day, perhaps as many as one every second. We walk around with a “monkey mind” sitting atop our shoulders. This mind creates stories and narratives as we make sense of our experience. It is evolutionarily adaptive, helping us survive physical threats and navigate psycho-emotional challenges. That said, most of our thoughts are repeats, the “Top Ten Tunes” of anticipation, worry and regret.
What can we do with a busy mind? While we can’t eliminate thoughts, we can literally train our brain to become less reactive to whatever impulses or urges find their way in to our consciousness. If you’re like me, any efforts to ignore or exile thoughts just causes them to multiply. So we aren’t going to clear or empty our mind. Instead, we can bring a curious attention to whatever arises, instead observing and engaging with thoughts so they don’t have quite the control over us that they usually do.
You’ll find four strategies for working with a busy mind below,
1. Let the mind wonder and wander
Many beginning meditators find themselves frustrated that they can’t clear their mind. But that is not the point. A first step might be simply allowing what arises and being curious about it. There is no need to judge or try to make things a certain way. This practice can be relaxing and relieving because it is not asking you to do anything but to observe the unfolding of your experience.
2. Walk it off with The Mind Eraser
Sitting still might feel like torture when the mind is busy. A wonderful movement-based practice to try is Walking Meditation. In particular, try out sequential counting, or as I call it, The Mind Eraser. To begin, walk at a natural pace. Become aware of the cadence of your steps. Then count each step, in a very particular way. The right foot is “one,” the left foot is “one,” the right foot is “two,” the left foot is “one,” the right foot is “two,” the left foot is “three”. The sequence of counting will look like this: 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on until you get to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Then begin to count down, start with “ten,” then “ten, nine” and so on until you get to 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. What next? Begin again. If you lose track, just pick up wherever you think you may have been. Confused? That’s practically the point. The mind becomes overwhelmed with counting and the discursive thoughts become a bit quieter.
3. Ask the mind a question
If you can ask a beautiful question, you’ll find the answer often lies several layers below our normal mode of thinking. In fact, the answer might be held in the body, in a felt sense that can not be named but is instead felt. In this practice from Martine Batchelor, the question becomes the anchor of the meditative experience. Instead of seeking a response to “What is this?” the practitioner instead notices what arises.
4. Let it be
In her poem Allow, Dana Faulds begins, “There’s no controlling life. Try corralling a lighting bolt. . .” Buddhist philosophy identifies three poisons that keep us in a state of suffering: grasping, aversion and delusion. We seek pleasure, avoid pain and bend reality to our preferences. Another possibility is to try to let things be just in this moment. Perhaps we will act or speak differently in the future, but whatever is here now is here now. Meditation teacher Tara Brach offers some suggestions in practice of what one can say when dealing with unpleasant thoughts or sensations. I particularly like her offer to say “yes” or “this too” or even “I consent” to whatever comes up.
The practices of meditation can be transformational but they aren’t always easy. It helps to have a group and a local teacher to support you in your practice. Every Monday evening at 7:15pm, Marc Balcer and Center For Self-Care offer a drop-in teaching and guided meditation at Balanced For Life Yoga in Devon, PA. Click here to register and join us.