The quest to find the mind’s “off switch”
One of the first things a mindfulness teacher will tell you is that the point of mindfulness is not to empty your mind of thoughts. Your teacher will reassure you by telling you that if you have a healthy mind, it will generate thoughts, and that this is not a problem. Yet, one of the reasons you probably came to this practice is that annoying little hamster in your head that never stops spinning — thinking, thinking, thinking, from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep. Maybe you’re looking for the “off switch” to get some relief and you heard mindfulness practice could help.
Mindfulness practice is not about suppressing thoughts
Many new practitioners mistake mindfulness for a thought suppression technique. For example, some people hope that letting go of their thoughts and bringing their attention into the present moment will ultimately make those thoughts go away by redirecting their attention to the present moment.. Research on thought suppression consistently demonstrates that the harder we try to not think of something the more we end up thinking about it. This is because to successfully suppress thoughts, a part of your attention needs to check to make sure these thoughts aren’t present, and the checking ironically makes you more aware of them. So by putting energy into quieting the mind, we inadvertently create more noise. This is what many people quickly realize when they practice mindfulness in this way, which leads frustration giving up, and claiming “Mindfulness is not for me because my mind is too busy!” Does that sound familiar?
Setting the Right Conditions for a Quiet Mind
The good news is that having “too many” thoughts will not prevent you from practicing mindfulness skillfully, which will help you quiet your mind. Neuroscience research demonstrates that parts of the brain associated with mind-wandering are less active in long-term meditators than non-meditators, suggesting that practice can help quiet your mind. So how do you cultivate a quiet mind without striving for it?
Mindfulness practice can help you set the conditions that are conducive to a quiet mind. It’s kind of like falling asleep. When you fall asleep, you aren’t directly — it just happens when the conditions are right. In fact, the more you try to fall asleep, the less successful you are. It’s when you lie down, turn off the lights, get comfortable, and let go of trying to fall asleep that — poof! — you’re out. A quiet mind arises through a similar process. Here are five ways your mindfulness practice can help you set up the conditions conducive to a calm, clear and quiet mind:
1. Drop your control agenda
Give your mind permission to generate as many thoughts as it wants during your meditation. Radically drop the agenda to attain a calm, clear and quiet mind. You may find this relieves a lot of pressure and stress during your meditations.
2. Adjust your posture
You may not have any control over your mind but you have plenty over your body. Get into a posture in which you feel comfortable and safe, but also stable and alert. You may find it helpful to straighten your back a little more, open your chest, and drop your shoulders. It’s been shown that your physical posture has effect on your “mental posture”.
3. Calm down the body
Take at least three deep breaths. See if you can empty your lungs very slowly and fully. And when they are completely empty, hold for a few seconds, then let your lungs slowly fill back up naturally. Do this two more times. This simple technique has been shown to activate the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system, which is associated with calm well-being.
4. Come to your senses
Scan through your five senses – the colours and shapes you see, the sounds you hear, the aromas you smell, the flavours you taste, and the sensations of touch outside your body (like places your body touches the surface you are sitting on) or inside your body (like the sensations of warmth, tingling, or pulsing in your hands). Do this as though you were just born into this body, and you were discovering all this for the very first time. As you scan with a sense of discovery, notice what you are the most attracted to and curious about.
5. Find your “anchor”
Once your attention settles on the most interesting aspect of your experience (e.g. a beautiful sight or sound outside, a delightful smell or taste of warm cup of tea), stay there, as though you had dropped an anchor to stabilize yourself in one place. Investigate all the details of this experience, as though your were convinced that there was something new to discover about it in each passing moment. Look for some new aspect you haven’t seen, heard, smelled, tasted or felt before. And see if the experiences changes, even subtlety, from moment to moment. Keep this up for as long as you wish. That’s the essence of mindfulness practice.
Notice that the point of this practice is not to get rid of, or suppress, anything. Rather it’s about leaving your thoughts alone and becoming engrossed in your present-moment sensorial experience. So in order to get that well-deserved peace of mind, see if you can redirect your efforts from trying to control your thoughts to getting curious about what you can discover through your senses.
Dr. Julien Lacaille is a psychologist, mindfulness teacher, and director of program development at the MindSpace clinic.