“All the things that truly matter, beauty, love, creativity, joy and inner peace arise from beyond the mind.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Your beautiful mind can be your worst enemy.
I know someone who suffers from schizophrenia. He constantly hears voices, like a radio in his head. It's a constant distraction, making it nearly impossible to hold a job or do anything that requires concentration. The worst part is that the voices say negative, demeaning things to him. He's trapped by his mind and his illness.
In truth, we all suffer from voices in our head. They may not be audible, and they may not always be negative or demeaning, but there's a constant babble of information, worries, instant replays of interactions, thinking ahead, or ruminating about the past.
Our brains have a mind of their own, even when we are alone and quiet. But much of the time, the noise in our heads is compounded by everything around us — television, computers, traffic, people talking at us, the myriad of distractions and sensory input that comes at us daily.
If we were cartoon characters, our heads would spin around and explode, exposing a bunch of smoking coils and springs.
Sometimes it feels as if there are two entities living inside our heads — the one that is constantly cogitating and responding to input and the other that is underneath all of that, the real you who gets lost in the menagerie.
In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle discusses a revelation about this duality during a dark period in his life:
I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live. “I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I' and the ‘self' that ‘I' cannot live with” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.” (Tolle 3, 4)
He goes on to discuss how this revelation completely changed his life, pulling him from despair with the awareness that you can free yourself from your mind. Eckhart Tolle's journey became a spiritual one, but I believe that the awareness of our ability to control our minds has very practical, daily applications.
When you learn how to control your mind, you open a door to the vastness of creativity, inspiration, and brilliance that is just behind the clutter of your thoughts.
Awareness and belief that you can control your mind is a huge first step. Many people go through their entire lives victimized by their thinking. They believe they have no control of what thoughts take up residence in their brains, and worse, they believe that every thought they have is true. In fact, most of the time our thoughts are meaningless, untrue, or simply a portion of the truth.
Buddhists use a psychological metaphor called the “mind-monkey,” suggesting that our minds are “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.” When we learn to tame the mind-monkey and master our thinking, then we have the power and freedom to change our lives profoundly through clear, brilliant action.
Learning to tame the mind-monkey is like training a puppy or a toddler. You need persistence, patience, and a gentle hand. You have allowed your mind to run wild for most of your life, but once you learn to exert simple boundaries and control, your mind will respond brilliantly. Simplifying your thinking will expand your mind.
Here are some ways to put this into practice on a daily basis.
Be The Watcher
As I mentioned before, awareness is the first step to change. Start by becoming aware of your thoughts. Separate your “self” from your thoughts, and just observe what is going on in your mind. But try to do this impartially, without judging the thoughts. Be conscious of yourself as a witness to your thoughts. You can do this sporadically throughout the day. But also try it by sitting in a five minute meditation. Sit quietly, breath normally, and simply pay attention to the thoughts that float by in your head. If you get carried away by a thought, gently redirect yourself to be the witness.
Stop the Bad Monkeys
The most debilitating thought traps are those that reinforce negative, limiting beliefs and feelings. These are the thoughts where you replay disappointments or failures in your head, or you focus on your perceived bad qualities, or you over-think a problem or worry. Critical thinking is helpful when it leads to a solution or conclusion. But circular thinking traps us on a treadmill, draining our energy and happiness. The longer you are on the treadmill, the more ingrained that pattern becomes in your brain.
There are several “mental tricks” you can use to interrupt this pattern:
- Simply say “stop” out loud (vocalizing reinforces the interruption), and then visualize a metal wall slamming down in front of your runaway thoughts.
- Wear a rubber band on your wrist, and gently snap it or switch it from one arm to the other when you are aware of a negative thinking cycle.
- Break the cycle using distraction. Do something that will occupy your mind so there's no room for the negative thoughts, like repeating the alphabet or singing a song.
Teach Your Old Mind New Tricks
Your mind abhors a vacuum, so you can't rid yourself of negative thinking without filling the void. Otherwise the same negative thinking will creep back in. There are two ways to fill the void to set the stage for mental brilliance.
First, consistently use positive thinking to contradict negative thoughts. This will feel stupid and awkward at first, but eventually you retrain your monkey mind to believe it. Secondly, take positive action. When you are in a worry spiral, do something, anything, that is productive or positive to distract you from negative thoughts.
Practice Clean, Clear Distraction-Free Focus
When you need to do something, focus on the task at hand. Remove all distractions. Turn off the phone, clear your desk, close the door, and do the thing. Sensory overload is food for the mind monkey. A distraction-free mind has more energy for brilliance and creativity. In fact, the fewer distractions you have in life in general, the more freedom your mind will have to create solutions and generate ideas.
Acknowledge the Truth (or Lack of) about Thoughts
In reality, most of our thoughts aren't true. What we think about ourselves, how we see other people, and our perceptions of situations are usually fear-based speculation or partial reality. The real truth lies in the present moment. You can worry about “what was” or “what if” all day long, but the only reality in that is the wasted energy and time you just expended. Simplify your thinking to reality-based thinking, which is grounded in the present moment.
Simplify Your Lifestyle
Support your simpler thought patterns with a simple life. Too many thoughts, too many distractions, too many things, too many choices, too many people all contribute to mental clutter, inertia, and frustration. Do less with more time. Have less but enjoy it more. Think less and have the clear space for mental brilliance.
Simplifying your thoughts is a discipline that takes regular practice. It's like exercise — awkward and painful at first, but eventually it becomes more natural as you get stronger. The rewards of a “simple mind” are life-changing. When you are free from the bondage of your thoughts, you are free to do or be anything.