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How to Be Present and Peaceful When You Can’t Stop Thinking

“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” ~Eckhart Tolle

When I first started practicing Zen (or presence), I used to believe I could become completely thoughtless. Making my bed, no-thought. Washing my hands, no-thought. Walking around, no-thought. Imagine the spiritual experience!

But it wasn’t like what I thought it would be.

The reality is my mind was on full throttle all the time. No matter what I did, there would be a billion thoughts popping out from my head, preventing me from having even a moment of peace. Then I would yell at myself, “Okay, enough. Get out of your head now! Stop thinking!”

In a panic, I thought about all those concepts I'd learned. “Now which technique do I use?” I’d think to myself, “What would a master do? There must be something I can do to silence my mind…”

The harder I forced myself, the noisier my mind became. I tried so hard, but I just couldn’t do it. In fact, it just made things worse. My thoughts and inner dialogue would run even wilder. I was frustrated and angry with myself.

During my first few years of practicing Zen and meditation, I was never at peace. Not even close. But I didn’t give up.

As I learned more about spirituality, I finally found the answer. I was too hung up on killing my thoughts. I became obsessed with them, even though they were the very things I was trying to get rid of. As soon I realized that, I finally let go, and now I feel free.

Here is what I learned, and how you can do the same.

1. Understand it is impossible to silence your mind.

It’s human to have thoughts. It means you have a healthy and functioning brain. We don’t need to get rid our thoughts at all. Why?

Just like our eyes see, our ears hear, our nose smells, our tongue tastes, and our body feels, our mind thinks. If you want to get rid of a specific function, you will have to destroy the corresponding organ. The underlying message is simple: No one has a mind without thoughts, unless he or she is dead.

When I tried to stop my mind, I was actually doing the impossible. Just as I can’t make my eyes not see and my ears not hear, there is no way I can make my mind not think.

2. Don’t judge yourself.

A quiet mind is not a mind with no thoughts. Rather, it is a decision you make to embrace every emotion and thought within you.

Here's the irony: When you embrace all your thoughts without judgment, no matter how annoying they are, your mind will calm down.

So don’t resist your thoughts. Don’t beat yourself up for thinking too much. If you do, you are giving yourself unnecessary stress and anxiety. Thinking is the core function of your mind, and you are going to hear mental dialogue whether you like it or not.

If you try to fight it, you resist what is inevitable. The more you fight your thoughts, the more you amplify them. Being non-judgmental is the key to stillness. Be okay with whatever thoughts you have, and true inner peace will come naturally.

3. Separate analysis from action.

I love to hike. When I get to the foot of the mountain, I don’t really think ahead. I focus only on the individual steps that lead me to my destination. With each step I take, in each passing moment, I admire the scenery and I savor the smell of fresh air. It’s a great way to become present.

The reason I can do this is because I know where I want to go, how to get there, and the purpose of my hike beforehand. This way, I clear my mind of all analytical thinking—about the past and future—and I can get into the present more easily.

Whenever you analyze, you are always thinking into the past and future. This takes you away from the beauty of the present moment.

Of course, challenges and unexpected things happen. But as you deal with them with a defined purpose, your thinking stays within the present rather than thinking ahead, worrying, and giving yourself unwanted stress.

Separate analytical thinking from action. Plan beforehand. Know exactly what to do before you start. Have a clear purpose and defined steps you would take.

4. Focus on what you are doing.

Do you meditate?

When you meditate, you need a focus. It could be your breath or a mantra. This restrains your mind from wandering. Like the Buddha said, your mind is a dancing monkey. It is always looking for ways to escape from the present. On the other hand, a focus is like an oak tree that grounds you in the present.

To stop the monkey from breaking away, you tie a rubber band between the two. Whenever the monkey goes too far, the band snaps him back to the trunk of the tree.

How do you do this in your daily life? Unlike meditation, many of our daily tasks are habitual. Things like using the bathroom, taking a shower, eating, and walking are very hard to focus on.

This is because your brain automates these tasks to save energy. This isn’t a bad thing, but now that your mind is freed up, it begins to babble non-sense. It starts wandering to the past and future.

Luckily, you can use these tricks to increase focus and stay present:

Mentally remind yourself of your present action.

Use self-talk to direct your focus back to the present moment. For example, when washing your hands, repeat in your head, “I am washing my hands. I am washing my hands. I am washing my hands.”

Focus on your senses.

Direct your attention back into your body and out of your head. For example, when taking a shower, observe how water trickles down the surface of your skin. Inhale the fragrance of the soap. Enjoy the warmth. Listen to the sounds of flowing water.

Do things differently.

Make things more challenging. A classic technique all Zen masters use is to do everything in slow motion. This may sound easy, but it’s not. You will have a hard time doing things the way you want to. As a result, you are forced to act consciously instead of acting on autopilot.

5. Return to focus whenever you wander away from it.

Let’s go back to the oak tree-monkey analogy.

At the beginning of your practice, your focus may be weak. Instead of an oak tree, it is more like a sprout; a monkey can easily uproot it.

But don’t give up. Plant another tree. Bring your awareness back to your focus whenever your mind wanders away from it.

Yes, that tree will probably be uprooted too. But each tree you plant will have its roots deeper and its trunk stronger than the time before. Likewise, your focus becomes stronger each time you return to the present moment.

In this sense, mental noise is actually a good thing. It is an opportunity for you to become aware and strengthen your presence.

Presence is One Simple Choice

More than likely, all this is hard for you right now. All those concepts, techniques, and teachings you learned are complicating things so much that they don’t help you anymore. Worse, they make you even more stressed.

If you really want a quiet mind, you have to throw all these concepts away, at least for the time being. Instead, start making everything in your life a practice. Learn not to judge yourself. Learn to be okay with whatever happens, and relax.

You may not be able to do this at first, but it will happen. And when it happens, you will feel a click in your brain. On the outside, you will still be you. But on the inside, you will be overflowing with tranquility.

This is not because you have silenced your mind. Not because you have banished all your negative thoughts. Not because you have mastered a lot of techniques.

It is because you are okay with whatever happens. You are okay with negative thoughts. You are okay with a noisy mind. You are okay with interruptions and distractions. And when you are okay with whatever happens, you don’t hang on to them. In other words, you learn to let things go.

Until then? Change the way you see your thoughts, and change the way you deal with them. All it takes is a little commitment and practice. This is your first step. One simple choice.

And soon, you will have the inner peace you have always dreamed of.

About Blon Lee

Blon Lee is a Chinese Buddhist who helps people transform suffering into joy with Buddhist wisdom. Download his free guide: Buddhist Meditation Ultimate Guide: A Step-By-Step Guide to Finding True Inner Peace.

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  • Focusing on the present always helps. And if you want to take it into another level, you can also suspend thinking for a bit. Do it by clearing your head – you don’t have to think all the time. And from there, watch the present arise right in front of you.

  • Thanks for your input Daikuro

  • stevhio jones

    Great article–monkey/tree analogy, “embrace all your thoughts without judgment,” and “be the awareness behind your thoughts, instead of being your thoughts and emotions.” I will be making a complete list of all your thoughts for mantras.

    Life’s energy flow — “qi” — is another concept I like because each person controls his own regardless of others or circumstances.

  • Geet

    Best one from many amazing ones, as it talks about what after learning all those techniques. Why it gets worse after sometimes. Thanks a ton.

  • Thanks! Glad it helps, Geet!

  • Thank you Stevhio! The Buddha is truly a genius for coming up with the monkey tree thing. And being Chinese, I like the concept of Qi, too

  • Tyler

    Thank you for the great read. Trying to quiet the mind can be difficult. But I enjoy how you put it, it isn’t about making the mind perfectly quiet but watching the thoughts and being okay with them is the goal. Your right, nobody has a completely silent mind.

    Thanks again

  • Thanks Tyler. A problem I see a lot is that people too hard to empty their mind. They struggle and get all stressed over it. This paradoxically creates more thoughts.

    The solution is really to accept the present as it is, silent mind or not. And the mind will slowly calm down.

    Glad you like it!

  • i needed this, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Thank you Claudia!

  • Great article on meditation, especially how it is impossible top stop the mind thinking, but not impossible to divert your attention to help become present;-) Thanks for a neat guide on practical ways to incorporate more meditation in our lives. As someone who tends to be very analytical (I constantly over-analyse), I understand how that stops me being mindful.
    But despite feeling good analysing, this feeling is hardly anything compared to, ‘presence’- thanks for posting.

  • SkyDriver

    Wow! Thank you so much! Especially that last part, it was really useful and it helped me a lot after reading the article.

  • Thanks! So glad it helped

  • Thanks Julian! Your comment precisely summarized what I was trying to say in a thousand words

  • Herman

    Hey there, Blon Lee!

    Let me just start of by telling you that I found your article to be absolutely genius.
    I
    usually do not read stuff about meditation unless it comes from a guru
    or mystic that talks about it. I was just going through some
    overwhelming emotions and I thought, let me read this article and see if
    I get to learn something new which can help me with my spiritual
    practice and I’m very happy to say that I’ll be applying all of the
    techniques that you have suggested.
    I especially loved the technique
    you mentioned about mentally reminding yourself about a certain action –
    That is an absolutely genius method.
    I also loved the third point
    you mentioned because usually when I’m outside walking, I try to focus
    on my walking and suddenly I find myself lost, like where the hell was I
    going? I guess this probably happens because I have 2-3 places that I
    need to visit in a particular area like a certain grocery store, or a
    snack corner and so on. Then there is also this whole thing about the
    stuff I need to buy and I find it difficult at times to really stay
    focused on the journey itself which is walking. I would love if you had
    any more tips on this.
    Lastly, the moment I reached the end of your
    article, my negative emotions automatically vanished. Perhaps, it could
    be due to my years of practice, but nonetheless, I just want to say that
    your article was of immense help. 🙂 Thank you!

  • Just came across this blog and this article was a great read, thanks Blon! I really like your insight on separating analysis from action. Being in nature is an awesome way to stay in the present moment. Sometimes we can get so caught up in worrying about the future and reliving the past that our purpose in life cannot find the steps needed to move forward. Let your purpose guide your plan and give the plan a place to develop with each positive step. Thanks again!

  • SkyDriver

    A helpful way to summarize it: “Acceptance is being aware of what is and not trying to change it.”

  • Nice summary! Definitely what I was trying to say in the post.

  • Thank you! Glad you find it useful. Maybe you want to give hiking a try?

  • Thank you so much Herman, I am very grateful for your comment! Glad it helped.

  • Artorius

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been meditating for about three years but have never been good at being mindful in day-to-day activities. I’ll give this a try.

  • Brian hall

    What a lovely and useful article on the challenges we have when we begin meditating. I finally added meditation on a daily basis when I realized that while I drank that first cup of coffee every morning I could use it as a time to be alone and be mindful. I haven’t missed a day yet. Thanks Blon Lee

  • Thanks Brian! Keep it up!

  • Thank you Artorius! Wish you success

  • Manisha Manisha

    nice one

  • Thank you!

  • Marcos Stolfo

    Thank you very much Blon Lee. I am a beginner in meditation and your explanation was exactly what I needed to hear: it is not about to eliminating the thoughts that are constantly coming, but accepting them as they are, without negative judgment or negative feelings. This is exactly what I needed to practice. Thank you so much!

  • Thanks Marcos! I hope your practice goes well!

  • One of the most effective ways to meditate and one recommended in most of the Buddha’s teachings is to meditate on the mind itself. This means directing mindfulness to the thoughts and emotions and other mental objects themselves. Meditating on the breath may quiet the mind for a while, but it leaves you vulnerable to those thoughts and emotional reactions, which will surely return if you have not faced them directly and trained in maintaining balance and equanimity in relationship to your thoughts. This is the real purpose of meditation: Rather than trying to empty the mind of thoughts or quieten the mind, which is futile and short-lived at best, you develop stillness and non-reactivity (equanimity) in relationship to the mind. This is training in liberating the mind from the blind control of thoughts and emotional reactivity (positive or negative).
    So, when I work with students I teach them to develop a friendly relationship towards their thoughts and emotions; one in which we are fully mindful but not identified or lost or overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions. This kind of meditation is vital if you are subject to compulsive negative thinking, OCD or anxiety or depression, all of which are the product of the absence of equanimity.
    The point is that the only effective way to generate equanimity (upekkha) is by meditating on the thoughts themselves. It takes some practice and guidance, but after a few weeks of this kind of vipassana meditation you will be amazed at the freedom from reactivity that you will achieve.

    The Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • This is the best advice I have read about meditation, and I have a lot of books on the subject!! Thank you so much.

  • harmony

    This is the best post I’ve ever read about meditation. You’ve captured the major roadblocks that all of us face and how to overcome them. Thank you for demystifying the “thoughtless” meditation practice that we all fall prey to.

  • melanie_sakowski

    Thank you so much, this was an absolutely enlightening pleasurable read.

  • Liz Goldberg

    I’m recovering from a broken foot, so I’ve been in slow motion for a couple of weeks now and pretty much living as “do everything in slow motion…..You will have a hard time doing things the way you want to. As a result, you are forced to act consciously instead of acting on autopilot.”

    So true. Now I just need to find a way to do slow motion life on a regular basis without the broken bone as a pre-requisite.

  • Thank you so much Julie!

  • Yes, this is exactly what I want people to learn about! Thanks so much harmony 🙂

  • Thank you Melanie 🙂

  • Hi Liz, I hope you get well soon. On a positive note, maybe you can make the most of your recovering time to learn to live more consciously. 🙂

  • Susan March

    Outstanding article. I’m saving it to re-read. It’s okay to have thoughts. I find peace when I notice thoughts yet am not attached to them or as you mentioned, have no judgement about them. For me, its an ongoing relaxing of the mind from the tension of holding on to those thoughts. Relax, release and let it go. Peace definitely resides in the present moment. Thank you, Blon.