Wising Up To The Mind - How To Calm Your Thoughts With Mindfulness Meditation
There is a gorgeous wooden arbour down by my local duck pond and whenever I can, I try to sneak over there for a little peace and quiet.
There are lots of ducks living on the pond at the moment. They hang around in groups of three, one female duck and two male ducks in each group. They have this funny little routine whereby one male duck and one lady duck disappear into the reads at the back of the pond while the other male duck stays at the front of the pond and seemingly keeps guard.
Whenever I move or someone else comes over, including other pond neighbours, like the moorhens, the guard duck starts quaking and racing about! I think it’s his way of telling the other two ducks that something’s going on! Next, the nestling male and female come out of the reeds and all three of them fly away. Ten minutes later they all fly back and repeat the story. I don’t know if it’s the same male duck that goes into the reeds with the lady on each occasion or not as they look very similar!
It’s a real spectacle.
Watching the ducks go by in this way makes it so easy for me to be an impartial observer. I sit patiently, keeping quiet so as not to interfere with them and the more often I go and watch the more I learn about them and it’s all kind of fun and also a little bit magical.
Mindfulness meditation is less charming than duck watching - but it’s similar.
Watching and getting wise
Many people are familiar with the first bit of meditation, the relax and focus bit, but people are generally less familiar with the part where you just sit there, aware of the changing flow of things without interfering.
What do I mean by the changing flow of things? Think of it like this, at the pond, the changing flow of things could be: ducks swimming, the sun coming in and out from behind the clouds, the sound of the reeds blowing, a few quacks and the sensations of glee in Emmas body as she watches from the arbour.
But what happens when you aren’t watching ducks canoodling and instead you’re sitting down with your eyes closed meditating? In those moments it can be easy to get bored and think there’s nothing much to see, right?
Here’s how that might go:
You’re sitting down, your eyes are closed and you’ve just done a little breathing exercise. You’ve focused on your breathing coming and going for a few minutes. You have completed all your relaxation activities and then you notice that you’re still sitting down with your eyes closed but now you are unoccupied by a specific task. It’s usually here, the moment you become unoccupied that you begin to get bored, restless and then decide to open you eyes and stop meditating.
But what would happen if instead you carried on watching In just the same way you might watch the scene while doing something like duck watching?
Here’s how that could look:
You remain sitting quietly, aware of whatever is happening. If sounds happen - you’re aware of them. If sensations happen in your body, like getting pins and needles in your legs from sitting cross legged or maybe a little neck ache, you notice those too. Then you might be able to smell the scent of coffee if someone’s making that nearby. And then of course you’re aware that you are thinking! Thinking, thinking, thinking. Maybe all the time. Or, maybe hardly at all. Either way you continue to sit quietly watching all that comes and goes, learning about yourself and your experience until it reaches a natural end.
When you sit and watch you notice that each living moment brings with it this constant flow of perceptions and a continual stream of mental activity. Sometimes we feel very aware of our mental activity and other times we are less self aware and instead we’re entirely identified with our thoughts.
For better or worse the way we experience our thoughts and internal monologue goes on to guide our feelings, behaviours and relations. In meditation, none of that changes. There may still be a whole lot of mental activity going on, you know, thoughts about this and that. The difference is that in meditating you’re sat down, patiently, watching and learning. You aren’t trying to get them to go away and you aren’t overly concerned about their content.
Just like sitting at the duck pond, if you sit at the shore of your mind for long enough with a patient demeanour and genuine curiosity, you’ll learn things about the habits, patters and tendencies of your mind which will be very useful in your daily life.
What will you learn?
What exactly you’ll learn is a discovery unique to you, but here are some common findings:
- Thoughts repeat and go round in circles
- The mind is usually unsatisfied with whatever ‘is’ and is forever urging you forward towards what’s next. (i.e.: if you’re meditating in the morning this could be breakfast or coffee or shower time)
- The mind, If left to it’s own devices, soon becomes involved in some sort of grievance. If you use the wand of reason to quash that particular grievance, the mind will magic it back up again or come up with a new one.
- The internal monologue nearly always revolves around ‘me’, ‘I’, or ‘mine’. A bit like that Beatles song ‘I, me, Mine’
- The patterns of your thinking change a lot over time and change according to your biology. For example, if you’re tired, hormonal, sick or intoxicated you might notice biochemical led mind altering shifts in thinking.
The good news is we aren't alone. The patterns of mind we find in ourselves through self observation and mindfulness are more often than not common to all of us. Ok, perhaps not all of us but let’s just say, a lot of us, and there are records of this throughout literary history. For example, thoughts of regrets, resentment, nostalgia or shame about the past and fear, usually about the future.
There are many other patterns you can notice and the great news is that the more you watch, the wiser and more aware to your own system you’ll become. It’s quite something that as you wise up to your thoughts, it’s often the case that they have less of a pull on you. Meditation is a lovely way to be mindful and cultivate wisdom
around these patterns.
P.S We haven’t spoken here about the times when positive, wonderful, enjoyable thoughts occur. That would be a very interesting investigation to make now wouldn’t it! This makes me think of a lovely line from Naomi Shihab Nye:
‘But happiness floats. It doesn't need you to hold it down. It doesn't need anything.’