How to Calm Your Mind and Cultivate More Presence
Let me introduce you to the human mind: a tricky, deceiving little rascal, chattering away with no mercy. When was the last time you stopped and listened to the train of rambling thoughts stomping through your brain in a stampede-like frenzy? It NEVER ENDS.
In Buddhism, the term monkey mind, or “kapicitta” is used in reference to the ever-wandering and easily distracted habits of our mind. As Buddha observed, “Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.”
This sounds terribly depressing and hopeless, but let me put your busy, racing mind at ease. There is hope, there IS a way to keep your incessant, unpleasant thoughts at bay – or at least navigate your way through them with some sense of control.
We have two ways of perceiving things:
Perception via the thinking mind (often referred to as the “monkey mind”) and perception via the observing mind.
The thinking mind is more intellectual. It dissects, analyzes, scrutinizes and at times can unfortunately be reactive. The thinking mind is the mind that makes a grocery list while you’re in savasana; it’s the mind that finds things to worry about and fixate on. It is incessant, agitating and merciless.
The observing mind is objective, non-judgmental and non-reactive. It watches and accepts. You may notice this in particular when you are in meditation, watching your thoughts drift by like clouds, watching them and letting them go without judgment or feeling the need to classify or compartmentalize.
Which serves you better?
I’ll let you be the judge. Here is a layout, or map if you will, of what the thinking mind looks like vs. what the observing mind looks like. This list will help you determine when your thinking mind is at work, and will assist you in shifting gears to the observing mind.
Characteristics of the Thinking Mind:
1. Confusing the past and future:
The thinking mind does not live in the present – it lives in either the future or the past, which most of the time are both out of our control.
2. All or nothing thinking:
A good example of this is “I can’t miss a single yoga class or I am a failure.” Not everything is black and white, there is typically always a middle ground.
3. Mental filter:
Discrediting valid evidence and choosing to pay attention to the bad, rather than the good.
4. Jumping to conclusions:
Assuming you know what is going to happen or know what someone is thinking when it reality, this is very unlikely.
5. Emotional reasoning:
Associating a feeling with a fact or reality. “I feel scared, so all of life is scary.”
Categorizing or putting a negative label on others or yourself. “I’m a failure, I’m a loser, he’s crazy, she’s weird.”
Assuming you know someone or a situation based on a single factor. “She was impatient with me last week so she must be a mean person.”
8. Disqualifying the positive:
Only recognizing the negative and not acknowledging the positives. In your yoga practice, this could be criticizing yourself for not being able to hold a particular pose, but not recognizing your progress in another.
9. Living in absolutes or blowing things out of proportion:
“I had a bad day so my entire life sucks.” “We got into a fight so we’ll never be friends again.”
10. Should’s, Ought To’s, Must’s:
Words that are used typically to insight blame or guilt in ourselves or others. “He should get a better job.” “You ought to follow a specific diet.” “I must accomplish ______ in order to feel worthy.”
11. Inappropriate blame:
Shifting blame from others to yourself or vice versa. Blame is useless and is typically used to deflect negative attention.
Now that we’ve gained insight on how the thinking mind works and what it looks like, let’s compare it to the observing mind.
We have two ways of perceiving things: perception via the thinking mind (often referred to as the “monkey mind”) and perception via the observing mind.
Characteristics of the Observing Mind:
As you can see, the observing mind is much easier to describe. The observing mind is non-judgmental and non-labelling. It recognizes without judgement and accepts what is. The observing mind lives in the present moment – it doesn’t focus on what was or what will be.
Instead, it lives in the here and now, watching with acceptance. It is present, non-reactive, calm and objective. This particular mind generates thoughts like I accept, all is well, I am calm, and I am open.
The Takeaway . . .
The key in all of this is to observe your thoughts in a non-judgmental manner and learn how to recognize thinking mind-driven thoughts. Just recognizing and classifying the thinking mind thoughts is half the battle. Once you can recognize and classify, it takes the power away from the thought entirely.
Hopefully, seeing the distinction between the thinking mind and the observing mind will help you recognize some of the unhealthiness that occurs in your head. Remember – it’s okay, and it happens to all of us. Watching, recognizing, classifying and OBSERVING is a great starting point for incorporating meditation into your life.
In closing, I humbly offer this meditation tip using the observing mind:
Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and when the thoughts start swirling, picture them as clouds in the sky passing you by, or floating by you in a river. Picture the thoughts outside of your body and watch them pass by, observing them in a non-judgmental manner. Use the mantra “All is well in my life” and continue to breathe deeply, helping your mind and body remain calm and relaxed.
You are in the flow and all is well! Take it one day and one breath at a time. With practice and commitment, you will gain more clarity and control over your thinking mind.