Mind Matters Most
Among the many challenges arising from the coronavirus is the impact of isolation on our mental wellbeing. Confinement, diminished social contact and worries about the world present internal stressors for many of us as we are forced to spend more time with ourselves, exposed to the tumultuous nature of our complicated minds.
For others, this period may also present itself as a blessing in disguise. Much of the outside stimulation that normally captivates us is taken away. With isolation comes a slowed-down pace of life, a simpler existence freed from the constant push and pull of our social commitments, desires, plans and obligations.
Whether our experience of social distancing has positive or negative undertones, or perhaps a combination of the two, there is an opportunity to get to know our thoughts and become more aware of what’s happening inside our minds. We can use this time to our advantage, to begin understanding the various ways we are limited or debilitated by unhealthy mental habits.
Buddhism and certain schools of psychology have a lot to offer in the quest toward a healthier state of mind. They demonstrate that by gaining a better understanding of our thoughts and how they affect our emotions, we can start recognizing unhealthy patterns that stall us in states of low self-esteem, anger, jealousy, worry, doubt, fear and anxiety. By understanding the nature of our mind and how it generates negativity in our lives, we can move toward dwelling in a more peaceful state of loving acceptance.
We may not realize the extent to which our thoughts affect our feelings and influence our sense of wellbeing. Spending too much of our time in negative states of mind—spanning everyday worry, fixation, self-focus, ambivalence, agitation and restless desire—we are chased throughout the day by our busy thoughts. We become captive to the voice in our head that constantly judges, speculates, complains, compares, dislikes and condemns. Most of our thinking is repetitive and often useless. Whether reliving the past or rehearsing possible futures, we are caught up in the ceaseless meanderings of our unruly minds. Our addiction to ‘thinking’ gives us a false sense of pleasure.
The medical field has only touched the surface in documenting the benefits of meditation that traditions of the East have promoted for centuries. For instance, in the book Altered Traits, Goleman and Davidson explore cutting-edge research on meditation, examining how it has the capacity to transform our mind, body and brain, leading to lasting positive change at the higher levels of practice. They discover that our brain stays just as busy when we’re relaxed as when we’re under some form of mental strain. In other words, our minds’ ‘default mode’ switches on, even when we’re not doing anything particular that requires effort or focus. This default mode continually rescripts a storyline in which we each take centre stage, replaying particularly upsetting or favourite parts over and over. When researchers at Harvard University asked thousands of people to report on their mood and mental focus at several random points throughout the day, they concluded that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”.
It is through these ruminations that we construct our sense of self from the mosaic of our experiences, memories, plans, hopes and dreams. We become the centre of the universe as we know it, fully believing and accepting our subjective, self-created narrative.
By applying the right kind of awareness or mindfulness, we can deconstruct the story that we are continuously creating. It starts with a conscious shift in our perception—the way we view ourselves and the world around us. Teachings from Buddhism can aid in unpacking the flaws in our thinking that lead to a skewed understanding of our reality.
Begin by simply becoming more aware of your thoughts. Observe how the continuous chatter impacts your emotions – a constant stream, a bewilderingly rapid parade, unpredictably changing and tirelessly repeating the same stories. By stepping back and observing the volatility of your thoughts, you don’t need to take them all that seriously. The intention is to reduce the power given to thoughts, delegitimizing their control and pervasive presence by witnessing them as an objective observer.
Meditation plays a fundamental role in this process. It isn’t the only way, but it is a valuable tool to begin understanding, investigating and transforming mental formations.
A general mindfulness practice begins with noticing our thoughts impartially, without judging or condemning whatever arises. In practice, it typically requires focusing on an object of meditation. This may vary from maintaining attention on the breath, observing the sensations in the body or mentally repeating a mantra. Thoughts themselves can even be objects of concentration (bearing witness to the stream without getting swept away by the current). Whichever object you choose, the intention is the same: to repeatedly bring your mind back to the present. It doesn’t matter so much what you focus your attention on, rather that you recognize when a loss of focus occurs. There is a difference between thinking and awareness of thinking!
A common misconception is that the mind must be completely quiet, that if you don’t switch off the thoughts you are not meditating. This isn’t the case. You can’t force your mind to be still. With sustained attention the chatter will become quieter, receding into the background. Many factors influence our mental state and some days this will be more difficult than others. The task is in learning how to observe without judgment or emotional reaction, no matter how still or busy your mind may be.
Start by sitting comfortably, closing your eyes and observing how it feels to simply be. It’s important to remember to be kind, compassionate and gentle. If the mind wanders, smilingly bring it back, understanding that it is the nature of the mind to wander. Acceptance is key – acceptance of whatever may arise. Just observe and remain aware. Simply witness reality as it is, not as you would like it to be. If the mind is busy, the mind is busy. If the mind is still, the mind is still.
By dedicating the time to explore your mind, you will begin to see that much of life’s suffering is unnecessary, self-created and avoidable. Understanding how your thoughts create reality is one of the most valuable insights you can attain. Through the wholesome acceptance of the mind, it is possible to transform reality and cultivate a more positive way of existing in this world.