The Mind - Are you walking it or is it walking you?

By Beth O'Hara - July 2010

Does it ever seem like there is such a clatter inside your mind that you can't focus at all? Or you just can't seem to get the latest Lady Gaga lyrics out of your head? Most of us have an incessant flow of thoughts that distract us from whatever we are doing, whether it is focusing on work, deeply listening to another, or simply being present to the blessings and beauty all around us.

Once the mind really gets going, it can be a challenge to slow it down again. Sometimes it is the inner critic that is the loudest, telling us everything that is going wrong. A friend of mine calls the inner chatter the "Committee" and it creates continual questions, doubts, and confusion. Other times it is just a flow of memories or imaginations that keep us out of the present. I can get caught in planning loops and go over again and again what I need to be doing in the future. Currently, I'm noticing that my mind often creates imagined conversations, perhaps to keep myself entertained and from feeling alone.

Some thinking is necessary, of course. It is useful to calculate the tip at a restaurant or choose the optimal route to get someplace. But most of the time our minds are overrunning us and draining vast amounts of energy with habitual loops. It is like the dog taking the owner for a walk rather than the owner walking the dog and we end up not being able to be fully present. We can't concentrate completely. We don't pay attention to where we set the keys down and so can't find them later. We put the milk in the cabinet and cereal in the fridge. We drive or walk home without noticing the flowers blooming, the sun setting, the rising of the moon. We miss 99% of what is happening around us.

So what do we do about this? How do we teach the mind to heel, so to speak, so that it is a highly useful tool rather than an overgrown Mastiff dragging us down the street.

The most important piece, first of all, is to notice what the mind is doing. The mind can operate independently of the body, heart, and consciousness. Just like you can't train a dog unless you are paying attention to it, you can't train the mind without observing it. Simply take time each day to watch the thoughts arise with gentleness and compassion. (Judgment only serves to strengthen the egoic aspects of the mind and makes it run even more wildly.) Notice the thoughts with curiosity and hold them lightly, like watching clouds on a summer day - notice and allow them to drift by.

The most effective ways I've found to bring the mind to the present are by regularly connecting to the breath and the body. The habit of the mind is to deny and escape the present moment. Yet the body and the breath can only exist in the present. Several times a day, take a moment to notice the thoughts and then simply breath and connect to your body. It can be in ways that are very easy. Take some deep breaths and feel your feet on the ground. Spread your toes and fingers. Shrug your shoulders up on an inhale and then take a deep exhale and drop them. Then see how it affects your mind and your awareness.

There are also many specific breaths and movements that help shift the state of the mind. Here is a simple one.

If the mind is anxious and running quickly, try taking a deep breath in and slowly breathing out - letting the exhale become longer. To make it even more effective, find a position to rest the head below the heart - like standing up in front of a tabletop and resting the head on folded arms - while slowing down the exhalations.  Feel your feet and legs.  Press your feet actively into the floor while activating your thigh muscles and lift your thigh bones to your hips.  Lenthen your spine out of your hips and feel the breath expanding your rib cage.

Many practices like yoga, tai chi, qigong, aikido and meditation teach ways to train the mind compassionately to be more present. Try different things until you find what is effective for you. The best practices are the ones that work for you and you do on a regular basis.

The last piece is consistent practice and patience.The mind is habitually fixated and it takes time to shift it. Some days the mind will be more quiet, some days it will be more agitated. Some days the practice will get disrupted. Come back to the present moment regularly, simply because it feels good to return home right here, right now.

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