There is an old Buddhist story about a man riding a horse, which is used to illustrate what a racing mind does to us. One day, the man was riding his horse quickly down the road and with great determination. A bystander shouted to him, “Where are you going?” The man on the horse replied, “I don't know. Ask the horse!”
Our racing mind does the same thing to us: it takes us for a ride, and we don't know where it's going.
Some people have the misconception that they need to calm their mind before they start meditating. They often think that they're just the type of person who can't sit still. Having a calm mind is not a matter of who you are, but rather what you do. This is good news for you because it gives you control over your peace and serenity.
Why Can’t I Sit Still?
If your mind is always racing, then you're probably overwhelmed with activities, which are over-stimulating your mind. Your commitments take up every minute of your day; from the time you wake up, until the time you go to bed. Your mind never gets a rest, not even when you sleep.
When people ask me how to stop their mind from racing, I tell them to start by taking their foot off the accelerator. Most of us are unaware that our daily activities are the primary sources of our mental agitation. Once we become aware of these sources, we can do something about them.
There are four main sources of agitation: (1) too many commitments, (2) background noise, (3) painful memories, and (4) worrying. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Too Many Commitments
Most of us want to be productive, and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem arises when we take on too many commitments without being fully aware of how these activities affect our mind. Many of us have families, so we have long-term commitments to providing for them.
Some of us had to endure extreme hardships when we were growing up, and we certainly don't want our children to experience that. So we work hard to give our children all the comforts of life. However, if we don't have a balance between our commitments to our family and personal time, our mind becomes extremely agitated.
In an age of fast-paced careers and multitasking, we have difficulty taking time to relax and rejuvenate ourselves. To deal with this problem, it would be helpful to mindfully examine our commitments. We can do this by asking ourselves some tough questions:
* Do I have any personal time, or is it all filled with commitments to others?
* Is making so much money really contributing to my family's happiness?
* Are my extracurricular activities truly helping me relax, or are they simply drowning out the noise in my head?
I would suggest making a list of all your activities and commitments, including meditation. Remember that your spiritual development is important to your family's happiness, because it will enable you to truly be available to them, both mentally and emotionally. Then prioritize your commitments according to how much they contribute to your and your family's happiness, and give up the least important ones to make time for your personal needs. With many of our commitments, we have no choice in the short-run. We can't quit our job, or abandon our family.
Once you've developed some measure of mindfulness through your meditation practice, you can begin thinking more long-term and restructure your life in order to take your spirituality to a higher level. That is, you can examine your job (or career) and determine whether it is indeed contributing to your family's well-being.
Background noise is another thing that agitates our mind, and much of it is unnecessary. Often when we're driving home after a busy day at work, we'll turn on the radio in our car to help us unwind, all the while, still thinking about work or things we need to do at home, such as checking on the kids or making dinner.
When we get home, then we might turn on the television while we settle in, not really paying attention to what's on. We usually do this unconsciously to drown out the constant chatter in our mind. What we may not realize is that this background noise is agitating our mind even more, and when it becomes unbearable, we might pour ourselves a drink to help us relax.
Some people play the radio or television while they work, thinking this will help them concentrate. The reason this seems to help is that the extra noise prevents uncomfortable thoughts from rising to our conscious mind, but the background noise only creates more agitation.
Sometimes, we'll play the radio or television while we're doing chores. We often have an aversion to silence because uncomfortable thoughts tend to rise to the surface. They can be either painful memories, or thoughts of situations that are causing us stress.
There is nothing inherently wrong with listening to the radio or watching television. When we engage in them mindfully, they can indeed help us relax. I certainly enjoy watching television and listening to music. The problem arises when we use them as background noise. Remember that any stimulus to our senses triggers thought processes, and if we're trying to cultivate a quiet mind, then they're certainly not helping. What I would suggest is not playing the radio or television (or any other entertainment device) when you're doing something else, and focus your attention on the task at hand. This will help you stay in the present moment, and develop concentration and mindfulness.
At the other extreme, I've seen people throw away their radio and television, but this is also not conducive to mindfulness. Keep in mind that these are simply mediums that we use to connect with the rest of the world, and it's difficult to be fully mindful if we're out of touch. The whole idea is to use these tools mindfully, and not to agitate our mind. I think you’ll be surprised at how much calmer you will become when you stop using entertainment devices as background noise.
We all have memories of loss and injustices that caused us pain and suffering. Unless we've dealt with them, we have an undercurrent of thoughts and emotions that is constantly agitating our mind. Our tendency is to avoid thinking about painful memories, so that we don't re-live the pain and suffering. We often do this by creating some form of noise or distraction, or by putting something into our body to dull our mind, such as alcohol or other substances.
Another way we often keep painful memories at bay is to engage in activities that bring us sensual pleasure, such as food, sex, or even work.
We usually do this if we haven't yet learned constructive ways of dealing with adversity or stress. What we're essentially doing is trying to replace negative emotions with positive ones. However, this only covers up the pain temporarily. It doesn't allow the wounds to heal.
If you've experienced mental or emotional trauma, then I suggest getting professional help, in addition to your meditation practice. In doing so, I would caution you about using prescription medications, as they just cover up the symptoms. They don't deal with the underlying problem. Of course, always follow the directions of your doctor, but keep in mind that you will only overcome your problems by confronting them.
Most of us have unresolved issues with other people, especially loved ones, and sometimes even with ourselves. If they're not severe enough to require professional help, then your mindfulness meditation practice should suffice in dealing with them. The truth is, they'll take some time and effort to overcome, but once the wounds from your past have healed, they will never cause you pain and suffering again. The good news is that it'll be much easier and less painful than you think, because your meditation practice will give you the inner strength to overcome almost any adversity.
Keep in mind that if you don't deal with the wounds from your past, you'll miss out on the peace and serenity that lie on the other side.
Worrying: The Ego's Greatest Ally
Unless we're highly evolved, most of us worry at some time or another. We generally worry about not having our wants and needs met. Some of our biggest worries are about money and financial security. No matter what we worry about, it is all counterproductive and slows our progress.
I should point out that there's a difference between concern and worry. With concern, we acknowledge an issue's importance and our need to address it. On the other hand, worry is a fearful dwelling on the outcome. For example, we may worry about our children having enough to eat, or we can take the necessary actions to get the food they need.
Worry is rooted in the ego because our ego is constantly dwelling on wants and desires. Furthermore, if we're not yet able to see ourselves beyond this physical form, we’ll worry about our mortality and of being alone in this world.
As you develop mindfulness, you will see that you're more than a physical form, and you're not alone. When this happens, the ego will begin to disappear, and so will worry. In addition, by being mindful of worry immediately as it arises, you can prevent it from gaining momentum, which makes it much easier to deal with.
While worry has its roots in the ego, it gets its fuel from unrealistic thinking. We often think about the worst thing that could happen if we don't get what we want or need. We spend a lot of time and energy creating scenarios in our mind about how bad it will get, and most of them are unrealistic. And even if they are realistic, worrying isn't going to help.
We often worry when we have too much free time on our hands. When we're busy, we don't have time to worry because our mind is occupied with more productive things. When I was early in my spiritual journey, I worried all the time. A friend of mine gave me a clever and simple solution: get involved helping people who are less fortunate than me. I took his suggestion, and it worked. Not only did it keep my mind occupied, but it also helped me get out of myself and put things into perspective. Suddenly, my problems weren't so bad.
Today, I volunteer at the local homeless shelter several times a week, so I never have to worry about my personal problems, and I get a tremendous amount of joy and fulfillment out of it.
Adapted with permission from the book
Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple
Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple: Your Guide to Finding True Inner Peace
by Charles A. Francis.
Transform your life and relationships with the 12 steps of the mindfulness meditation practice. Through the clear instructions and simple exercises, you will gain a solid foundation of this time-tested ancient practice, and get the results you want.
About the Author
Charles A. Francis has a master's degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, with a focus on health care management and policy. He is the author of Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple: Your Guide to Finding True Inner Peace (Paradigm Press), and co-founder and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute. He teaches mindfulness meditation to individuals, develops mindfulness training programs for organizations, and leads workshops and mindfulness meditation retreats. Learn more at MindfulnessMeditationInstitute.org.