“You don’t suffer because you have thoughts. You suffer because you judge them, resist them, believe them, wallow in them, or identify with them.” ~Unknown
At one point in my life, I wondered, “Will things always be this way?”
So rushed, with barely a moment to call my own. Current events swirling around, reflecting the worst side of humanity. Lost under the weight of my to-do lists, financial worries, and deadlines.
I barely knew where my thoughts stopped and I started. Would I always be this anxious, irritated, distracted, and isolated from those around me? Even from loved ones?
Most of my days I was running around like a headless chicken. My brain going at 120 miles an hour. I was either asleep or thinking. There was no ‘off’ switch. I couldn’t seem to slow down or focus my ‘tornado’ mind.
All that thinking inevitably led to anxiety. It was hard to quiet the chaotic state an anxious mind had. When I was anxious about what the future held or past regrets, my mind would race.
When my day ended, I struggled to switch off from thinking about work. And come the weekend, I couldn’t sit still for five minutes.
My racing mind was useful in creative processes. Like a thought factory. I could go to sleep on a problem and have the solution by the morning.
I could problem-solve challenges quickly. But it was a balancing act. I took the bad so I could achieve the good. The bad was overprocessing negative situations, obsessing over drama, insomnia, stress, and binge eating.
I was constantly trying to work things out in my head, to the point where I felt like Sherlock Holmes solving a case. It was constant, non-stop head chatter. It was as though I was in a noisy room all day.
Many times, these thoughts were things I could do nothing about. But I continued to worry.
At bedtime I’d be on my phone until I fell asleep, which was not helpful. Whatever I was doing on my phone (browsing the net, scrolling through Facebook, or playing games) kept me distracted from my thoughts. I did that until my brain got so tired I fell asleep.
I wanted to bring me back to myself. Back to a peaceful, connected stillness that enriched my life. I wanted to feel more grounded and centered.
Even when I tried to meditate, my ‘Nascar’ mind would take over: “Is this going to work? How will I even know if it works? This better work, it’s costing quite a bit of money. Look at this guy trying to teach me how to meditate. Should I trust someone with such big ears? Has this started to work yet? Am I doing it right? Why am I not feeling calm and relaxed yet? I must be doing something wrong. Should I be more patient?”
It reached a point where I realized something had to change… I couldn’t carry on like this. Either I changed or I would slowly crash, burn, and hit rock bottom.
So I went on a quest to find answers. I took it upon myself to become an expert in mindfulness meditation. Out of all the mental health tools I tried, mindfulness meditation had the most promising results.
Long story short, I found answers to this ‘tornado’ mind problem of mine. But it wasn’t what I expected.
There was good news, and there was bad news.
The bad news is we can’t control our minds or its thoughts. We can’t quiet or stop our minds from thinking.
Think about it this way: Your mind is like a bad roommate. This roommate is noisy, messy, and pessimistic.
Our roommate has “Chicken Little syndrome.” He freaks out about everything. His fear-based mindset thinks everything can and will go wrong.
Now, we don’t have control over this roommate. We can’t force our will onto him. And we can’t make him do things to our liking.
Because it will only make our roommate (mind) freak out even more! It’s a vicious cycle. The more we force it, the worse the destructive behavior gets. It’s like the quote “Whatever we resist will persist.”
Ok, so that’s the bad news. Let’s get to the good news.
Even though we can’t quiet, stop, or shut down our mind’s chronic thinking, we can create space between us and our minds.
Let’s go back to the roommate analogy. We can’t control our roommate’s behavior, but we can create space between ourselves and our roommate (mind).
For example: we can get out of the house, and do something pleasant, like take a walk in nature.
When we are not around our roommate life is much easier.
There’s no voice in the background nagging, freaking out, or worrying about every little thing. Not only does it help with chronic thinking, but the more space we create, the less we fuel our mind.
Our mind is like fire. The more we fuel it, the bigger and stronger it gets.
The more time we spend in our head, the more our mind pulls us out of the present. It can drown us in its ocean of thoughts and emotions, making it impossible for us to be calm, quiet, and at peace.
Instead of drowning in this ocean overwhelmed by crashing waves, let’s create some space and rather observe the waves standing on the beach. That’s what creating space does. It takes you out of the chaos so you can observe it safely from a distance.
How do we go about creating space between us and the mind?
See what I did there?
I didn’t call it our or my mind; I called it the mind. Your words are powerful, so choose them carefully.
You can start referring to the mind like it’s a third person, not like it’s part of you. You can give it a name. Something like Mr. Mind or Anxious Andy.
When the mind throws a tantrum, we give ourselves space by saying, “It’s just Mr. Mind freaking out. No need to let it affect me.”
Why? Because it’s true. You are not your mind. You are the one sitting in the seat of your soul observing this “thought factory” we call our mind. You are so much more than your mind. The mind is just a tool that’s at your disposal.
And the best way to get out of our heads is to drop down into your bodies. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”
We have a mind-body connection. That mind-body connection needs to be in balance. We can’t live in our head all day. The more time we spend stuck in our heads, the more we need to be in our bodies to create balance.
When you drop down into your body, it’s like a hug to your soul. Your body says, “Welcome home.”
Your body loves and craves your attention. Here are some ways you can give it some tender loving care:
Being in nature, observing the sheer beauty of it, forces us into our body’s senses. Our senses anchor us in the present moment. I try to spend at least an hour a week in nature to ground myself. Even if you live in an urban environment, try having a few plants in your apartment or going to a public park. Do the best you can with what you have.
This one sucks, but it makes up for how effective it is. It’s like exercise. You dread going, but it always feels better afterward. It’s like a reset button for your mental state. Start out with a hot shower and finish with thirty seconds of cold. It doesn’t have to be at its coldest. Do what feels best for you, but ensure it’s somewhat uncomfortable.
Feel and observe your breath. Notice how the in and out breaths affect the rest of your body. The shoulders lifting. The chest expanding. It’s important to feel your breath and not think about it or analyze it. Big difference.
Some meditators resonate better with a body scan meditation than with breathing meditation. What’s great about a body-scan meditation is it’s easier to meditate for longer periods compared to other meditations. Ensure the time you meditate is in line with your to-do list. The longer your to-do list, the longer you need to meditate.
Move your body.
Yoga is especially good at helping us get out of our heads and into our bodies. But find whatever activity you resonate with. Notice I said movement, not exercise. Movement is much more pleasant. Especially if it’s an activity you enjoy. Try something different like: roller blading, rock climbing, walking, hiking—whatever gives you enough joy that you’ll want to do it consistently.
I recommend writing over typing. Putting pen to paper may work better at grounding you in your body than typing on a keyboard.
I also recommend Julia Cameron’s technique called “Morning Pages.” It works well if you are prone to wake up with a million thoughts racing through your mind, since this gives the mind space to vent and let out all its worries.
First thing in the morning write out three pages of whatever is on your mind. There is no wrong way to do this. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write about that. Journaling in the morning helps you start the day with calm and clarity.
Batch your work into twenty-five-minute sessions. Not a minute longer. After every twenty-five-minute session, take a five-minute mindful break. In that break, check in with your body. Take a moment and feel into your body.
This is not a thinking exercise, it’s a feeling exercise. Feel into your body to find out what it needs. It’s like a quick body scan.
If you don’t listen to your body’s whispers, it will start shouting. Your body speaks up for you when you don’t speak up for yourself.
So, if you feel your body needs oxygen, take a short brisk walk with some deep breaths. If your body feels tense, do a few basic stretches. If your body feels dehydrated, drink water. If your body feels the need to go to the bathroom, do so. If your body feels hungry, feed it. During those five minutes, make a point of it to stand up and get away from your desk.
As you can see, pretty much anything that forces us to focus on our bodies will work. The more you do it, the less the mind has power over you. You’re not fuelling it anymore.
After doing these exercises for some time, you’ll look at your mind the same way an adult looks at a spoiled child throwing a tantrum.
You’ll have empathy for the tantrum-throwing mind. You’re a safe witness and can make objective decisions without the mind hijacking your vision of the truth. You use your mind, not the other way around.
You see things as they are. You don’t give meaning to it or add stories to the facts.
Life just ‘is.’ When you surrender to the powerful yet gentle flow of life your days seem effortless. You’re able to go through daily life untethered.
Realize you have a beautiful biological machine; you just need a manual on how to use it.