Do you have a mind that races endlessly? Join the club, right? Stopping the brain’s eternal discourse might not be entirely possible but know that there are people who experience less of it, they do experience breaks in thinking, and their thoughts are genuinely happier. Here are four reasons why you may not have experienced as much success at quieting the mind as you would like:
1. Most resources treat mastering or calming your mind as a single topic with a single cure
As this essay’s title suggests, we are capable of quieting the mind and enjoying a variety of benefits. Unfortunately, nearly all available resources treat this as one singe dense topic. When we research what people really want from a quiet-focused mind we uncover that most of our desires fall into 6 distinct camps:
- I want my thoughts to stop racing and stop causing stress and anxiety so that I can sleep well again.
- I want the endless negative chatter in my head to stop.
- I want to improve my thoughts to take the power out of negative emotion.
- I want my mind to slow down or stop racing. I wish I had an “off button.”
- I want to reduce all of the negative input that my mind receives from other people and the news because I realize that it puts me in a bad place.
- I want to increase my ability to focus.
Can the person who suffers from negative chatter also want to increase their ability to focus? Sure. But if we talked to these people, what would their chief aim be? Would every person want to increase their focus to increase their income? Be happier? Improve their relationships with coworkers and friends? No. Eventually, one activity (meditation) can enhance all of these desires simultaneously. But on the front end we need distinct activities to address specific afflictions. We need the right tool for the right job.
2. Most suggestions on mindfulness and improving the mind are decoupled from our daily situation
We are told that practices like meditation, religion, tai chi, or yoga, are good for quieting the mind, enhancing our focus, and improving our well-being. On a minor level, we are instructed on how to be mindful or spiritual during daily activities such as eating, walking, or interacting with our kids. These practices and traditions truly are beneficial. But precious little is said about how to distill often arcane or esoteric information and apply it when we are suffering the most.
As an example, I am in my 18th year of practicing and studying martial arts. In the first five or so years, training was enjoyable and definitely had a positive impact on my life. But the calmness and clarity I enjoyed during practice had zero carryover into my relationships, work, or schooling. I might as well have been studying boxing if I wanted martial ability or played soccer if I wanted a workout and sense of community. Who I was in class or meditation was not who I was outside of that one-hour block.
Meeting high level practitioners and seeing how they ran their lives, businesses, and interacted with the families changed all of this. Yes, they practiced. But they put their learning up against real activities in their daily lives. They “practiced” while washing the dishes, driving, or folding laundry just like all the magazine articles touting awareness and mindfulness suggest. However, they also had strategies to really “practice” when they got tested during times of injury and stressful life and work events.
If you undertake mindfulness activities, meditation, or active arts like tai chi or yoga, and wait for some great advancement, you may be waiting a long time. I believe these arts are designed to give you a sense of well-being and clarity. But you must then seek to reproduce these experiences outside in the real world. So, if we are going to truly succeed at improving the quality of our thoughts (like so many in these traditions have done), your strategies and practices cannot be separate from the very life events and thoughts that are causing the difficulty in the first place.
3. Our brain is largely untrained
Let’s say you bought a puppy. Would there be any expectation that your new dog would learn how to sit, behave, or go to the bathroom outside without training? Of course not. And if you decided to try and skip the training what would happen? He would be bonkers and probably create havoc in your life. A mind untrained acts a lot like this puppy.
Your puppy is nutso – you train the puppy. Your mind is nutso, you… do nothing if you are like most people because we don’t realize that the mind is indeed trainable. Through a simple, small accumulation of changes you can begin quieting the mind. The trouble is that most of us have never actively taken steps to do this. Maybe because up until this point we thought it was too hard or outside of our control. Or maybe taking control of the mind was seen as something just for people with psychological problems or something out of science fiction via hypnosis or mind control.
The idea that the mind is trainable should excite you. It means that you are not nuts, negative, weak, or broken. Just untrained. You need to get to work on finally addressing the problem (the training) head on.
4. Our brain is wired with a bias towards negativity
Survival has always been dependent on us paying attention to, and remembering bad events. If something threatened the survival of our ancestors, a memory needed to be formed immediately and vividly so that the pattern was not repeated. Makes complete sense, for them. But is it still serving us today?
“The brain is very good at learning from bad experiences and bad at learning from good ones.”
Dr. Rick Hanson
Think about someone you interacted with yesterday. If you had 10 positive interactions, 9 neutral, and 1 negative, which do you carry home with you? Last year at your job, out of all of the compliments and criticisms you received, which do you remember? Of all the relationships you have been in, can you more readily recall the people you broke up with or the people who broke up with you?
Bad experiences have direct access to the emotional and memory portions of our brain. This negativity bias creates a barrier to healing, growing, and learning. Basically, when you try something new you will more readily imprint the negative experiences that you have than the good ones.
So if we are going to increase our chances at succeeding at something new, we need a way around the negativity of the brain, right? The answer lies in how the brain imprints positive thoughts and memories.
Positive thoughts and memories have distinct criteria. A positive thought is 1) imbued with positive emotion, that is 2) felt physically at the same time it is thought mentally, for 3) a reasonable duration of time (at least 10-20 seconds). Any solution to ending negative mental chatter needs to incorporate mental, emotional, and physiological aspects in order to be successful. Most activities available to us to combat our negative mind are not this comprehensive.
Having our minds serve us rather than the other way around is completely possible. We just need tangible, concreate steps that are directly related to the problem at hand. And these solutions need to be mentally and emotionally tied to the goals in life that excite us most.
Readers of Tai Chi Basics consistently ask for resources to start meditating or improve their practice. I have become a big fan of the Art of Mushin Meditation Study Course because it is accessible to everyone – everywhere and is a good blend of hands-on practice, explanation, and science.