It’s been a long day. There was traffic going to work, and the 9-5 was a blur of meetings accomplishing nothing. After rushing out the door, you jump in the car to join all the other grains of sand pushing their way down the hourglass of highways leading home. You eat a dinner, without really tasting it, enjoy some Netflix and head for bed. You’re exhausted but know you need to be up early again so you better get to sleep fast. You turn out the lights, jump in bed and then BAM. Your mind wakes up.
It thinks about everything. What you did today, what you’ll do tomorrow, what your boss said to you, what your coworkers said, what you should’ve said, what you will say, who do they think they are?, what will you wear tomorrow, doesn’t your spouse hate that outfit? why do we always fight about the dumbest things, I’m going to tell them tomorrow, and then they’ll say this, and then I’ll say that, and they always act that way, but there are good parts too, but what’ll you do tomorrow, oh yea I’m going to tell so and so what’s what.
You look at the clock.
It’s been an hour, and you’re less tired than when you crawled into bed. You scold yourself for not relaxing, roll over give a sigh, and….BAM the mind is up again. Waking up early, again? how many years are you going to do this? what do you do this for anyway, it’s a good living, but is it really worth the money?, why do I slave and slave just for someone else, I should quit, but I can’t because I have a family and they need me, I love them, I could never lose them, but what if I did, how would I go on, but then I could quit my job though, and everyone would feel bad for me, especially at the funeral, this is the eulogy I would give….
You look at the clock again.
It’s been another hour, and you’re still just as awake. Maybe this time you’ll fall asleep. You roll over, give a sigh….and BAM the mind starts it all over again with the same nonsensical, unhelpful, torrent of thoughts.
Finding the Off Switch
Does this sound like you? I know because it’s me too. I know quite a few who would empty a bank account or two just to find an off switch to the mind. Anything to stop the torrent, stop the onslaught, and allow your mind to finally let you….relax. But what if I told you there was such an off switch? That you could calm the storm within, and give the voice that never shuts up a much needed break? You can give your mind a rest like giving a hyper-active kid a Popsicle and a coloring book. Silence. Golden, glorious, silence.
What I’m talking about is meditation. A concentrated, and deliberate effort to quiet the mind. There has been more and more press over the years, about addressing mental health, and how this age of social media and hyper-connectivity never allows us any peace. I’d have to agree, and go one step further; this has always been a problem for mankind even before computers and Facebook. This is because the running narrative in our brains that is almost impossible to shut off is also hard-wired into us. Our brains are designed to think this way to ensure our survival. We are constantly, thinking, planning, striving, and plotting to make the world just as we want it to be. And then every slight or deviation from this plan sets off another avalanche of thinking, planning, striving and plotting. It’s hard to handle. So people cope in different ways. The ways we try to get away from our own minds are endless. Literally any leisure activity you can think of is a way of turning your mind off and getting away from the mind. Some activities are benign and some are not but anything watching Netflix to going to a coke party has this common thread. All these things (even driving too fast, lifting weights, or reading books) are pleasurable to the degree that they distract you from the torrent of thoughts, and give you something else to think about. When you lay down to go to sleep, there are no more distractions, and the thoughts creep back in.
The other difficult thing about our minds, is that the thoughts we’re presented with are so often negative. The brain unleashes a flood of negativity, resentment, defensiveness, and fear. The self-talk that flows through the mind is rarely, if ever, encouraging and almost never actually helpful. To test this theory I challenge you to an experiment. Find a quiet room, or car, and simply say everything that comes into your head. And I mean everything, including the “I think this experiment is dumb, and Elliott is stupid” kind of stuff. Try it for 5 minutes. It’s actually pretty hard. It’s hard for a couple reasons, because your mind moves faster than your mouth, and because it’s well….embarrassing. You sound like a crazy person. But you’re not crazy, right?
The truth is we’re all a little crazy. Our brains are simply designed this way and will go on churning out thought after thought with no breaks at all ever for as long as we live. But there is something we can do about it. There is an ‘off’ switch. We can practice mindfulness, without distraction. We can get all the benefits of distracting the mind with TV, books, or even drugs, but without having to do anything at all. You can simply turn your attention to your present experience, as it is, without trying to change it or analyze it. If you can keep this focus, on the present moment for even a few seconds, you should stand up and congratulate yourself because you just meditated for possibly the first time.
Separating from your thoughts
And that’s all meditation really is. A conscious awareness of being present. What do you feel? What do you hear? What is it like to be you, right now? There are no answers to these questions, but simply asking them brings your awareness away from the ‘movie of the mind’ that never has an intermission, and everyone is forced to watch with eyes taped open. Mediation lets you leave the movie theater. You can look back in, and remember what it was like to be there, but you are free to put your attention on anything you like. You’re not trapped into watching every single thought that passes, and convincing yourself that it is of the utmost importance. Because these thoughts do not define you. They are not even real, and likely never will be. A meditative, mindful approach allows you to see these thoughts bubble up from the depths, burst into consciousness, and then fade away like a smell on a breeze. Only then are you finally free from the mind’s attempts at distracting and controlling you. Only then do you realize the ultimate reality, that you are not your mind. Your mind does things that you didn’t tell it to do, and that you don’t even agree with. Ever say something like, “I can’t stand myself”, or “I’ll never forgive myself”. Who is forgiving who? Is it ‘you’ forgiving your thoughts? Or is it your thoughts forgiving ‘you’? These questions are important to ponder because it starts to become absurd. You start to realize that the ‘you’ watching your thoughts, is not the thoughts themselves, and they begin to lose their power over controlling how you feel and act. The spell is broken like the door of an emergency exit being opened in a movie theater. You don’t have to watch this movie. You don’t have to sit there and watch these thoughts go by. You are free to go anywhere and do anything.
So, what if you just want to get some sleep? What if you’re not into all the woo-woo stuff about not having a ‘self’, but turning your mind off sounds pretty good? Try a bit of mindfulness before bed and see how you feel. It’s really quite simple. Not easy by any means, but simple.
How to do it
Pick a quiet spot and have a seat. Take several deep breaths in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Close your eyes, and let sounds come to you. Start at the top of the head and ask yourself how each part of your body feels right now. Where is tight, where is relaxed? Scan down to the toes and feel each of them. Now find your breath and watch it for a while. Watch it come into your lungs, and drift out through your nose. Feel each one, as if it were for the first time. Feel how each one is different than the one before it. Bring your awareness back to your surroundings, and open your eyes. Give yourself a minute to recognize how you feel, and thank yourself for taking the time to be present, and simply be silent with yourself.
You did it! It’s really that simple. You are now a meditator, and I bet it feels pretty good. Maybe you didn’t do very well. Great! You should try again and keep practicing. Maybe you feel like you did awesome. Great! You should try again and keep practicing. Like I said, it is simple in theory but difficult to master. Once you start to get better though this state of mind becomes addictive, because it feels good. You’ve finally achieved everything you’ve ever wanted. Peace, happiness, calm and it didn’t require any more money, or anything besides spending some quality time getting to know yourself. Let the rest of the world look for happiness inside of an iPhone, a television show, or a beer. And know that that happiness was in us all along. We just needed to be quiet, and listen for it. So goodnight, and I wish you sweet dreams.