Why and How To Quiet The Mind – The Basics
Quieting The Mind Is a Crucial Step.
Mindfulness is observing and living in the present moment. It is the NOW. Therefore, it’s impossible to practice while your mind is racing between that thing you regretted doing in college and worrying about what you’re going to wear to the party next weekend.
While practicing mindfulness and meditation will invariably quiet your mind for you, you need to be able to quiet your mind in the first place enough to be able to observe the present moment. If our minds are in the past or future and constantly chattering, this is just. not. possible.
Let me preface this with something here. Your mind won’t necessarily be completely quiet. It’s always going to be doing something. Mindfulness will greatly lessen the confusion and chaos that exists in your mind from moment to moment. I use the term “quiet” to refer to the order that mindfulness can bring to chaos. It’s more about peace of mind.
How Do You Quiet The Mind When You Need Your Mind to Do It?
It’s a paradox. You need to use your mind to quiet itself. It’s tricky to say the least. It’s like needing Eddie Van Halen in order to have a triumphant video, but needing a triumphant video to get Eddie to play in your band.
If you’ve ever tried to practice mindfulness, or gone through the exercises on the other pages of this site, then you’ve no doubt come to the realization that your mind is a loud, busy, and incredibly attention deficit part of you. It doesn’t take long to see that in trying to just watch your breath and watch your mind, you go crazy chasing thoughts. Maybe you daydream, maybe you worry, or maybe you fantasize about finally getting that Vitamix blender you see at Costco. You know, the one that can make ice cream out of strawberries. There’s that energetic person always demoing it and making smooties and stu… See what I mean?
Before long, you’re off on some stream of thought and a whole lot of time went by. You get frustrated because you feel like you’ve wasted a whole lot of time. I get that. I do it to, or at least used to. Not so much anymore, but it still happens. I can just stop it before it gets too far.
Why Are Our Minds So Busy? – Monkey Mind
It’s not so much that our minds are loud and crazy, it’s that we have issues. We have an evolutionary trigger that trips us up. It’s something ancient that was designed to save our lives, but has gone overboard in modern times. It’s called our Fight or Flight response. You’ve probably heard of it. Here’s why it’s an issue.
We live in a crazy physical world with physical bodies that can get hurt. Therefore, we are always on the lookout for things that change in our environment. When things change, we need to assess the threat level. Most of the time things are fine. We go about our day. Animals do this too. Just watch a cat fall from some great height. They will freak out a little, look around, then go back to licking themselves like it didn’t happen. Their mothers never taught them to quiet the mind. They just do.
Our problem is that we have higher cognitive abilities. We think about things, like, a whole lot. We go way beyond physical threats into the abstract. We are social creatures and want to belong to groups. If we are cast out of groups, it can mean suffering and death. It can limit our access to food and water, shelter and heat. Therefore, we crave love. Make sense?
Now, things that get in the way of our perception of where we stand in the world are thought of as threats. Threats are bad. We react. Bad kitty… No quiet the mind for you!
This reaction trips the same switches as immediate physical threats. The threat can be loss of anything that could impact our survival. We tend to go stupid crazy with this. I’d venture to say that a whole lot of our problems stem from lack of adequate coping skills to perceived threats, but I digress.
These perceptions go deep and manifest in many different ways. As many ways as there are people on the planet. This is our world. Watch the news. There are a few reasons for this. This kills our ability to quiet the mind.
Fight or Flight Response Gone Crazy – WARNING – Science Stuff Here.
When stimuli goes to our brains, our thalmus splits the signal to two different places. One goes to our amygdala, the other to our hypothalmus which kicks in our fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous resonse). It’s survival, plain and simple, just like discussed above. We naturally assume things are dangerous until proven not.
While this happens, the other signal that was sent to our thalmus goes out to the sensory cortex. This forwards the data to the hippocampus, which gives meaning to the data. It can go higher than just “danger danger” and is smart enough to figure out if it’s a threat or just something benign. It makes connections between other stumuli and looks deeper for meaning.
If it finds no true threat, it sends a message to the amygdala to tell the hypothalmus to shut down fight or flight. When this happens, our relaxation response kicks in and all is well. We can quiet the mind.
But when not…
Our bodies and minds prime ourselves to fight or run. This wreaks havoc
on our bodies. Long term, it can damage us.
For many people, this process never really stops. Worry goes on and on, and bodies wear down and break. Mental powers diminish, and with that, forget about meditating or practicing mindfulness. We’re hyper-focused on survival.
Attachments and Aversions
On top of the fight of flight response or laterally, we have things we like and don’t like. We will spend insane amounts of energy to avoid things that are unpleasant while spending a good amount of time and energy chasing things that give us pleasure. Just look at Black Friday in the USA for proof of this. This keeps our mind so damn active it’s a wonder any of the ways of taming it work at all!
These attachments and aversions, coupled with our survival instinct can push us to some nasty behavior toward others and toward ourselves. We judge, lie, cheat, steal, commit the seven deadly sins, etc… We even justify our actions, which is the worst part. The antithesis of quieting the mind.
Luckily, we have ways of beating this back. We can control both our fight or flight response AND our attachments and aversions. When we practice these things, our behavior will modify and improve on it’s own. We have tools, and I’ll give you some right here and now.
A Basic but Good Way to Quiet The Mind
To quiet your mind, you need to learn to let things go. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck thinking about them in endless loops, and you’ll get nowhere with practicing mindfulness and meditating. In order to snap out of the past or future and get your mind to quiet down, do this:
- Close your eyes.
- Inhale for a count of seven.
- Hold for a couple of seconds.
- Exhale for a count of eleven.
- Continue this for a few minutes until you feel calmer.
- Turn your attention to your thoughts. They’ll be going wild.
In your mind, yell STOP! Do this as loud as you can, mentally. It will disrupt the pattern. (This goes against the grain, but you need to experience something quick.We can observe and let thought go later.)
- Picture pure black.
- Your thoughts will resume.
- Do it again. Break the pattern.
- You might see the thoughts against the black. Feel free to push them away.
- Do this for five minute increments, then open your eyes and continue on your day.
Don’t worry about watching your thoughts and letting them pass naturally for now, that comes later. For now, STOP! Break the pattern and just watch the black. See it expand. It will when you do this enough. This will let you experience something immediately, albeit fleeting.
There will be small, tiny spaces of time when your mind appears blank (it’s not actually blank, but we’ll call it that for now) before the thoughts kick in again. The space grows with time and practice. Other exercises can expand this space. Magic lives in that space. We quiet the mind. We bring a sense of order to chaos.
I’ve written about this in a bit more detail in a new book on Amazon here.