I recently read in the book My Stroke of Insight by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor that the natural life span of an emotion – the average time it takes for it to move through the nervous system and body – is only a minute and a half. After that we need thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. So if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, or rage, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue.
The mind never seems to stop. A running commentary of how I’m doing, how do you think I’m doing, how you’re not doing it the way I want you to do it and what that means about us – if you loved me, you wouldn’t __________, if you really loved me, you’d ____________. Etc.
The mind is not broken. It’s not out to get me. I’m simply using it in a way it’s not designed to be used.
The mind, our intellect, is brilliant at a few things.
First, it’s a brilliant historian. It can tell me what happened and why it happened. It can see the patterns, the turns, the players. It’s great at this. But then I misuse it by trying to structure my future based upon what the mind is telling me about my past. I hold on and try to steer things into alignment by thinking them so. This never works.
Second, the intellect is great at solving problems. When I have to drive from the Valley to Mid-Wilshire, the intellect will add the time of day to the equation and then tell me what route to take; and all along the way it will measure my progress, adjusting as I move forward to find the least traffic, the most open, direct path from here to there until finally I am where I want to be. Success! When I figure out my schedule for the week, when I put something together from Ikea, when I work out the scene that takes us from Act I to Act II in my screenplay – these are problems the intellect is designed to solve.
I misuse it when I see my lack of happiness as a problem to be solved. Then my mind will tell me all the reasons I’m unhappy – you’re too old, too fat, no one loves you, no one cares, happiness isn’t available, the world is a bad place, etc., most of these reasons things over which I have no control. And how do I feel then, after my mind has told me all these? Still unhappy, and now hopeless to boot.
The mind can’t help itself. It’s going to feel sensations moving through my body and it’s going to explain to me what these sensations mean. It’s going to identify this sensation as sadness, then it’s going to tell me stories about why I’m sad. It’s going to take the thought ‘dog,’ then move to ‘old Rover,’ then how old Rover died and how lonely I’ve been since then, he was the last true friend I ever had, etc.
I can’t stop it. At all. The mind is going to do pretty much what it wants to do most of the time. But what I can do is step away from it. Have a point of view on it rather than be identified with it.
Each time we meditate, we transcend the mind, moving into that experience of Self that is pure Being. We find what we are that is beyond our thoughts and feelings, that is other than our thoughts and feelings. So when we find ourselves overwhelmed with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings in the eyes-open part of our day, we can remind ourselves that this is what the mind does, and I can get present to the sensations and the feelings passing through my body. I can get present to my five senses and let the mind do what it does. I don’t have to listen to it. And I will find that the more I practice being in the world rather than in my thoughts about the world, the less power the mind will have over me, over how I feel about the world and over how I experience the world.
And eventually it begins to quiet down on its own. And I can begin to find here with my eyes open the same peace I find in my meditation.
Today I will remind myself to get present to the world, rather than to my thoughts about the world. I will remind myself to listen to my friend, rather than to my thoughts about what she is saying. I will remind myself that my life is not a problem to be solved, but rather an experience to be had, and I will make myself available to that experience.