Here are seven tips you can start applying right away.
1. Accept that your mind is busy.
Did you know that the average mind churns out around 70,000 thoughts per day? That’s a lot of thoughts.
No wonder it feels so busy in there! Even people who are relatively laid back have a lot of traffic going on between their ears. So don’t be surprised that your mind is busy. Don’t create an additional layer of suffering by thinking there’s something wrong with you for having a ton of thoughts. There isn’t. Expecting your mind not to be busy is like expecting the grass not to be green. Let it is busy.
2. Engaging with the mind is optional.
If I were to choose one thing I learned about the mind in my time as a monk—the one thing that had the greatest impact on my peace, it would be this: Engaging with the mind is optional. It is not so much the thoughts themselves that cause us to suffer but our fascination and preoccupation with them. We spend our days chewing on them, wallowing in them, stewing in them, and generally giving them an inordinate amount of our time and attention.
And we don’t need to. Want to know the secret to ongoing peace? The less you get involved in what the mind gets up to, the more peace you will experience. Sit back and let the mind do its dance. Your involvement is not mandatory. Which brings us to the next point.
3. Watch your thoughts from a distance.
In order to disentangle ourselves from our thoughts, we need to create some distance, some breathing space, between ourselves and the mind. Most of the thinking patterns that rob us of our peace run unconsciously on autopilot. The same old patterns play over and over, day in, day out—like broken records. And it is so habitual, we don’t even notice we are doing it.
The key is to bring more awareness to these unconscious patterns. The first step when you learn to meditate is to take a step back and watch the mind objectively—with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgmental acceptance. You may also find that the simple act of watching thoughts, rather than being wrapped up in them, will stop thinking it in its tracks—or at least slow it down.
4. Give your thoughts the freedom to come and go.
If you want to tame an angry bull, the worst thing you can do is to tie him up or try to confine him in any way. This will only make him angrier and more difficult to control. The best way to calm him down is to give him a huge open field to run around in. Meeting with no resistance, he will quickly run out of steam. And it’s the same with the mind. Thoughts themselves don’t cause trouble. Left alone, they appear in your awareness, remain for a moment, and move on again.
No problem. It is when we try to control or manage them—through labeling them as bad, wrong, or unacceptable—that we get into trouble and create suffering for ourselves. Let them wander freely through the vast, open field of your awareness and they will quickly run out of steam. Don’t energize them with your resistance. If thoughts are there anyway, it is much better to befriend them rather than struggle against them. What happens to a sad thought or an angry thought if you welcome it rather than reject it? What happens if you don’t mind it being there?
5. Don’t take your thoughts personally.
Seeing that ‘my’ thoughts are not personal was another game-changing insight for me. For most people, what typically happens is this: You feel jealous. You feel afraid. You feel angry. And you then beat yourself up, believing you are personally responsible for the thoughts (feelings and emotions too) that show up in your head—believing there’s something wrong with you for having these thoughts.
There isn’t. You are not the author of your thoughts. If you watch the mind closely, you’ll notice that thoughts appear by themselves, apparently out of nowhere. In mindfulness training, we use the analogy of “the undercurrent and the observer” to illustrate our relationship with the mind. The key understanding is that the undercurrent—the continuous stream of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that pass through your awareness—is self-arising.
It is not within your control and therefore impersonal. What most people do is thrash about midstream, like a crazed thought traffic policeman, frantically trying to control the flow—welcoming this thought, rejecting that one. Trying to control the river is futile and exhausting. Better to be the observer, sitting calmly on the riverbank watching the river flow by—knowing it’s not personal. The less involved you are in trying to control the flow, the more peace you’ll experience.
6. Know the difference between thoughts arising and thinking.
Although there’s nothing you can do about the thoughts that show up in your head, thinking is another matter. Let’s say the thought appears, “My boss doesn’t like me.” It then triggers a dialogue in your head, “He’s definitely going to overlook me for the upcoming promotion. It is so unfair. I’ve been working here much longer than Jane. But he seems to like her a lot. Things never go my way. I’m just unlucky in life.”
This type of unproductive thinking is the primary cause of suffering for most people—and it is entirely within our control whether we choose to indulge in it or not. Replaying the past over and over, catastrophising about the future, wallowing in unfounded beliefs and assumptions—these are some of the patterns that can create so much unnecessary misery. And it’s entirely avoidable.
When you notice you’re caught up in an unproductive mind-movie, STOP. There is nothing that can compel you to continue if you choose not to. You’re the one in charge. Focus instead on being present in the moment. Put your attention on your breath, on the sensations in the soles of your feet, on the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. Unproductive thinking is mostly a habit. And like most habits, with a little awareness, it can be broken.
7. Live more in the present moment.
One of the main insights in meditation practice is that your awareness can only be in one place at a time. If you are lost in your thinking mind, you can’t simultaneously be aware of your surroundings. Likewise, when you shift your attention to the present moment, thinking stops. When you are present here and now, the mind automatically becomes quiet.
Whenever you are aware enough to catch yourself falling into habitual thinking patterns, stop and engage your senses. Tune into the sensation of the air caressing your skin, feel the weight of your body coming into contact with the chair, listen to the sounds around you. Be intensely aware that now is happening and notice what happens to your thinking mind
About Richard Paterson
Richard is an-ex-monk who blogs at Think Less And Grow Rich, a site dedicated to helping people break free from the clutches of an overactive mind to experience more joy, peace, and fulfillment in life. He has been teaching meditation for over twenty years and is the author of two books, Kick The Thinking Habit and Awaken The Happy You.