Does your mind have a mind of it’s own? For example, if you just stop for a moment and observe what is going on in your mind now, how would you describe your state of mind at this exact moment? Maybe it’s full of busy thoughts, or maybe not. Maybe you are feeling happy or sad, frustrated, foggy, excited, are you thinking about the next meal, the weekend or are you just feeling neutral? It could be just about anything, but it is most likely that whatever it is you are thinking about, it is not what is going on at this moment in time. Hence the question, what is your state of mind at this present moment? Has it changed from when you read the question a couple of sentences ago? How would you describe your state of mind thirty minutes ago? Was it the same or did something happen that made you feel differently? How was your state of mind yesterday? Again, was it similar or was it different? You might notice that your state of mind has changed using these scenarios, but were you able to notice when your mind state changed or did it just happen? Were you aware that the content of your mind had changed and whether your mood had changed in response?
Few of us really pay much attention to what is happening in our minds moment to moment. We are very caught up in thoughts of the past and of the future. The present moment doesn’t seem to hold our attention and can be very hard to keep hold of because it is constantly changing. It is the case that people going to visit psychics for readings invariably want to know what the future holds and what the psychic can tell them about their past. There is usually no queue for readings about the present.
For many of us our minds are constantly seeking excitement and stimulation. We can’t stop looking at our phones, scrolling to find the latest scores, gossip, trouble, looking for the next thing to buy etc. basically anything to occupy our minds. We text, check social media, check the news, play games on our phones and we are not aware at all of what is happening around us let alone consider if what we are feeding our minds is healthy. We don’t consider what is going on inside of our heads, our state of mind. We indulge in these things to take our minds off of what is going on in the present as though the present moment is uninteresting. But it is the present moment that defines our future moments and it is the present moment that has arisen due to what has happened in the past. So what’s our problem with the present moment?
Our minds are amazing! Our minds know if we are thinking about our minds! How can this be? If our minds are just our physical brains, then surely we would be no more than robots following our programming? It is the case that no one yet has been able to produce a robot that can think and make independent decisions – which is probably a good thing? And yet, we generally act as though we are robots following our habitual programming. By the time we reach adulthood we tend to progress through our lives following our habitual patterns, just responding as we always do and behaving as we always do, like a record that is on replay all the time. Its not often that we act spontaneously and think and do something ‘outside the box’. This habitual patterning we all carry around with us can feel stifling and be extremely self defeating.
Generally, thinking ‘outside the box’ is something we might have to do if we want to put a bit of Ikea furniture together and the instructions don’t make sense, or a piece is missing. Chances are, we will act like we normally do in these situations and either throw the furniture down and decide to do it another day or try to find a way to complete the task whilst swearing and bad mouthing Ikea all the while. Or we might want to remove a troublesome person or someone we don’t like from a social group so we find a way to push the person away and then we might go back to the group and have a good old gossip about them. There are all sorts of possibilities of what we might do when things occur to challenge us, but they will invariably depend on how we usually tend to deal with things, our habitual patterns. Whilst reacting to these challenges we have created a drama and avoided the present moment all the while. We’ve got lost in our thoughts and can see nothing of what is going on around us. This can cause frustration to build up until we feel consumed by our thoughts and feelings and we feel very stressed.
To break free from our habitual patterns generally means we have to pay attention to our thoughts. But this is what we are trying to avoid, so we go back to scrolling. Or perhaps we have a nice thought and we relive it over and over until we get tired of it when we realise that it is not going to satisfy us and our mood changes down. Its like having a song in your head that was great hearing it the first couple of times but after constant replays it becomes exhausting or irritating and we don’t know how to stop it.
But all of these things that are happening in our head are not going to go away. We live our lives with minds full of thoughts which are on continual repeat. The same things or kinds of things going around and around in our heads ad nauseum. No wonder we don’t want to sit with ourselves and look at what’s going on for us. We are constantly finding ways to distract ourselves from being with ourselves in the present. Our state of mind is full to brimming and there is no space for anything else. Yet we hear time and time again that staying in the present moment is the only way we are going to find peace of mind, but how do we train ourselves to do this and is this true? How can we get off of this roller coaster mind that just ‘has a mind of its own’ and why should we?
So it happens that when we do feel brave enough to sit down and observe what is going on in our minds, we might be further shocked to realise that several of the thoughts that are circulating are negative and self-defeating. Many people constantly replay thoughts that were seeded when they were children and these thoughts influence our behaviour and the way we react to our own children. When I had children I would hear myself churning out the same things my parents said to me and my siblings e.g. “I’ll knock your blocks together if you don’t stop arguing!”. “You can’t get down from the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate!”. “You don’t get pudding unless you eat all your dinner up!” And perhaps some older men can remember “Pull yourself together!” “Big boys don’t cry!” I expect these are familiar to some. Although nowadays its more likely that parents are saying things like “No you can’t play on my phone until you’ve done your homework!” These kinds of statements form habits in young people’s minds that can translate into adult life beliefs and behaviours as though they are the way things ‘should be’ or ‘are’. But then if our beliefs and behaviours are the result of programming when we were young can we escape our programming? Some people might think not, that we are victims, too old to change, can’t learn new things – but these are evidence of some of the self-defeating beliefs we have about ourselves and consequently project onto the whole of society without recognising that they are habitual patterns that have been programmed into our minds.
Other self-defeating negative thoughts that can arise are to do with lack of self-worth, self-belief, self-confidence and so forth and are also to do with what we were fed during childhood. These thoughts can manifest as “I should” or “They should”. I shouldn’t” or “They shouldn’t” “I always fail at whatever I do” “I am useless” and so on. Having too many negative thoughts can make us feel inadequate and depressed and to free ourselves from the inevitable feelings that will arise, the question we need to ask ourselves is are these thoughts true? Are they actually based in reality? If you really look at what your thoughts are telling you, can you find any truth or basis for them? Do these thoughts have any substance? Are they based on reality? If you think they are based on reality then where and what is that reality? Can I grab hold of those thoughts? Do they stand still? Do they have any solidity? Where do they come form and where do they go? What can I do to change it all and get a peaceful mind?
We use our brilliant minds to study what is happening in our minds and with Shamatha Vispassana meditation, also called Peaceful Abiding meditation, we can train our minds to let go of the thoughts as they arise before our mind grasps onto them and starts creating a storyline around them. We can check in with the self talk negative thoughts that arise and test whether or not they are true or have any foundation. Having realised that they are not true we can then choose to let them go with the outbreath and not hang onto them. We can train our minds to do our bidding instead of just doing what mind does, which is generate thoughts based on what is happening to us moment to moment. This doesn’t mean that they won’t pop up again, but when they do, there will come a time when you will notice their re-emergence straight away. Then you can smile at yourself as you say ‘hello’ to the thought and ‘I know this thought and where it will take me and I’m not going down that road again! Goodbye thought!’ and you let the thought go. It is incredibly freeing when that happens. It is a sign of how well you are doing and that you are taming your mind.
But we have to start at the beginning whenever we undertake any form of training, be it training to run a marathon or training to start working with our minds. It’s always useful to know what we’re dealing with, what our motivation and view is, what we hope to achieve and what tools and equipment we need for our training sessions. The equipment we need is a quiet space for meditation where we won’t be interrupted. Maybe we would have a special corner or place that we would always use for our training sessions. We might want to light a candle or some incense to signal to our minds that we are going to start working with our minds. Our motivation and view is that we are now going to work with our minds, that we carry on with the thinking we had before we sit to meditate after we meditate. Then we settle our body and then our mind and bring our attention to our breathing and this is how we start our meditation practice.
Meditation helps us gain control of our minds by providing a focal point for us, usually the breath as this is neutral and happens without us needing to control it. We bring our attention to the breath and observe the thoughts that come and go without getting caught up in them. We are simply trying to observe them and if we can discover from where they arise in our minds and where they leave our minds. It has been described like watching clouds drifting across the sky of our mind. It is not important if our minds are very busy, and we can’t do it, we are not trying to stop the thoughts. Every time we notice we’ve got distracted we come back to the breath over and over again. It is impossible to stop the flow of the mind. It can be a lifetime’s practice and at the end of it we still have busy minds but we will have greater control over our minds and be experiencing the incredible benefits of our ongoing training.
But there is a magic in making the effort that has positive results for us regardless of what our habitual mind thinks! The magic happens when we train ourselves to stop judging ourselves, beating ourselves up because we don’t think we can ‘do’ meditation, but instead we take a deep breath and relax, make friends with ourselves and accept that that is how our mind behaves. This is what is means to observe our thoughts – we train ourselves to drop the thoughts and the thoughts, opinions, beliefs, concepts about our thoughts. Thoughts are regarded for the purposes of meditation as being all the same – just thoughts – regardless of whether we add concepts to them. We don’t consider them to be good thoughts, bad thoughts, sexy thoughts, neutral thoughts, or whatever label we would apply to them. Everything that arises in our minds during meditation is just labelled ‘thinking’ and we let go of the thought and come back to the breath. It is a very simple practice but not without obvious challenges. Running is simple for many but to run a marathon will incur various challenges too. We have to persevere with our training if we want to see results.
When we can be friends with ourselves, be gentle towards ourselves we are letting go of concepts that may or may not be true or grounded in reality and that is very freeing. We are loosening the hold that our habitual patterns have on us and starting to enjoy the benefits of that freedom which will start to reveal themselves in the form of peaceful abiding, less stress, feelings of joy and contentment, being able to find skilful solutions to problems, feeling confident, feeling strong and noticing insights popping into our minds which are helpful for us and others when we give ourselves the space to allow that to happen. We start feeling more connected to the people and the environment around us and notice what’s going on for ourselves and for others. The benefits are endless. Our minds are limitless, there is always something to discover and keep our interest, to say nothing of the peace and quiet and eventual arising of feelings of bliss.
We can also train our minds by using our minds to contemplate questions such as ‘What is the mind?’ “Where is the mind?” “Does my mind have substance and if so what is its substance?” All of these questions and contemplations can lead us to the realisation that our minds like our thoughts have no actual substance that we can get hold of. We can then appreciate like a breath of fresh air how spacious and peaceful our minds can be. We can then appreciate the results of our training and contemplate some of the bigger questions now that we have the ability to let go of our previously held habitual beliefs.
So meditation is key. It is the only sure way to be able to discover the benefits of having a peaceful mind, of peaceful abiding. So why not sign up for one of our classes and put all this to the test for yourself. You won’t regret it and your life will take on an energy and meaning that you didn’t know was possible.
My all beings benefit from these teachings.
Blog by Christine Jeffcutt