I have never had a quiet mind. Those who know me might even laugh at that understatement. For the most part, I embrace it! There are many benefits to having a mind that likes to stay busy. Those of us who have “unquiet minds” also tend to be planners, problem solvers, action oriented and good in a crisis. We’ve likely already thought of the 100 different scenarios, potential courses of actions and what outcomes might result.
The downside of having a naturally unquiet mind is…that we’ve already thought of the 100 different scenarios, potential courses of action and what outcomes might result. We can easily wear ourselves out just thinking. Our biggest strengths and weaknesses are often opposite sides of the same coin. When a busy mind has nothing constructive to work on, there can be a default into worry (what will happen next??) and rumination (what went wrong??). Not only can that be exhausting, it can also decrease our ability to stay in the present moment. We can be robbed of the joy of the present by constantly being mentally in the past or the present. At its worst, a busy mind can have the tendency to catastrophize; our mind begins to write scripts that are unlikely, and even irrational. What our mind fixates on informs our behavior. Negative fixation begets negative behavior begets self-fulfilling prophecy.
Knowing this, I began to search for ways to quiet my mind when it needed a timeout. The practice of mindfulness helps our mind, body and spirit ground itself in the here and now. It allows us to catch our breath, protects us from being reactive, helps to improve both our mood and our memory, and builds our resilience.
Just like any other habit we are trying to create or muscle we are trying to grow, we must make mindfulness an intentional practice. For those with busy minds, it might take trying a few different techniques to learn to quiet our minds. If you are turned off to mindfulness because you imagine sitting on a pillow with incense burning in some yoga retreat, well, it can be that but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be found anywhere you have given yourself completely over to a moment. It might be found in the midst of your golf swing or during a laughing fit at something your toddler has just proclaimed or watching the sunset from the deck of your back yard or getting lost in a moment with the one you love. The key is to be able to replicate that experience of utter presence at any time.
The use of an affirmation or mantra is helpful for this because we can’t always retreat to the golf course or a warm embrace at a moment’s notice. Again, you don’t have to be a New Age guru to get the benefits of a mantra. I like to think of them simply as reminders; mnemonic devices for our mental well-being. I will share one that works for me, a self-proclaimed none-New Age none-guru. I was introduced to what became my mantra by Dr. Rick Hanson in his book, Resilience.
Let be. Let go. Let in.
Time: However long you need. I encourage you to try do to this for a minute or two at first and build longer from there. Choose a time of day that works best for you. Some find it a good way to start the day. I find it most helpful right before bed as a way to slow my mind for sleep. As you begin to benefit from this mindfulness exercise, you might find that even just repeating the mantra once or twice during the day when your mind starts to spin helps to connect you back to the present.
Place and Pace: Finding a quiet space and a comfortable position (sitting, laying down, eyes closed or gazing softly at one spot), take a moment to listen to your breathing. Do not worry about breathing a particular way, just simply notice it. Notice your chest or belly rise and fall. Notice if your breaths are deep and slow, or if you are breathing rapidly. Don’t try to change it. Just notice it. Notice how you are feeling in your body. Scan slowly from the top of your head to your toes. Is anything uncomfortable or hurting? If it is something you can adjust, change your position or shift to find comfort. If it is a pain or discomfort that simply is and can’t be moved (either because it is chronic pain or because it is emotional pain), notice it and accept it: “This is how I feel right now.” Try taking 10 natural breaths, in and out.
Let Be: Staying aware of your breathing, you might notice that your breath has slowed at bit. Perhaps you find that you have “sunken in” to the place you are a bit more deeply: muscles relaxed, eyes soft, heart rate calm, steady, strong. As you breath, there might be thoughts of things currently in your life that worry you. It might be the myriad of small “infinity problems”–those every day hurdles that seem nestled together like Russian dolls. Your mind might begin to think about plans you need to make, or current situations that gives you angst (illness, troubled relationship, financial strain). These might very well be things that need your attention and your action. They might also be realities that are unchangeable that you are trying to accept. Whatever it might be, for now, simply notice them and say “Let be.” Imagine the thought sitting on a shelf. It is safely put where you can work with it later. There is nothing you need to do with them now. Let be.
Let Go: As you continue breathing, if you find yourself drifting to ruminating thoughts of the past acknowledge them. It could be something from a day ago or years ago. Maybe you are replaying something you regret saying to colleague or recounting a painful memory from an old relationships. You mind could be recalling the pain of rejection, abuse or shame. As it drifts through your mind, say to yourself, “Let go.” Give yourself permission to let that thought drift away as easily as it came. Imagine the thought as a leaf falling from a tree. It floats past your eyes and you let it continue to fall, allowing a breeze to pick it up and carry it away. Let go. If your thought feels heavier than a leaf, imagine it as a backpack full of bricks you are carrying. Imagine taking off the backpack. Set it down on the path behind you. Walk away. Notice the lightness in your shoulders now. Let go.
Let In: As you breath during these moments, for however long you have given yourself to this practice today, visualize your chest opening more with each breath. Each time your lungs fill with air your chest widens and your heart is open to more things. With this, your mind might float to things you want in your life: love, connection, security, experience, calm, joy, forgiveness. You might think of these things in very general, broad brush ways. You might have something very specific that you want to invite into your life. Without trying to mentally orchestrate anything, simply say, “Let in.” Imagine standing in front of a window. On the other side of the window pane is your perfect vista, whatever that might be. Unlatch the window and open it. Let in what was on the outside. The sounds, the smells, the sensations. There is nothing for you to do except to stand in front of the open window. Let in.
With each practice of this exercise, you may or may not experience all three kinds of thoughts. Allow yourself to go where you need to go.
Mid-day mini-practice: During the course of a busy or stressful day (which can be most days), simply pause and say out loud or to yourself, “Let be. Let go. Let in.” Breathe in. Breathe out.
For more ways to grow your resilience, I hope you will continue to join me here.