Do You Know Your Own Mind? Here’s a Short Test
Our minds are wonderful tools that help us to solve complex problems, make logical decisions, and organize our daily lives. Like all tools at our disposal, it only makes sense to put them away once we are done using them. Think about it, after you use a shovel to dig a hole, a camera to take a photograph, a knife to cut some food, or a broom to sweep the floor, we put those tools down after they have served their purpose. We do not take those tools with us into the shower or to bed (we all know that would be ridiculous). Unfortunately, most people do not apply the same logic when it comes to their minds.
Zen Buddhists refer to the restless mind as the ‘monkey mind’. It is as if our minds have lives of their own, always restless, jumping from one thought to another, often without us being aware of it. It ruminates about the past, especially unpleasant events and circumstances that make us unhappy. It thinks about dire situations in the future that may or may not happen, leading to anxiety and stress. Most of these thoughts are not based on reality. In fact, Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened”.
It is important to note that our minds often operate autonomously if not kept in check. It is also important to realize that we are not our thoughts. Our thoughts are merely the result of our restless minds wandering incessantly in the past or in the future. Almost all our unhappiness is caused by our ‘monkey minds’ reliving the past, just as almost all stress and anxiety is a result of our minds imagining unpleasant events and circumstances in the future. To make matters worse, these thoughts that our minds conjure up are often not based on reality or truth. Couple that with the fact that most people are not aware of the way that their mind operates and you have a recipe for unhappiness.
The only way to be truly happy is to be in the ‘Now’. When we live in the present, most of our problems, unhappiness and anxiety dissipate. That is not to say that all of us do not experience real challenges, upheavals and problems. When we focus on the present, we are better equipped to handle these issues because the contrived unhappiness of the past and anxiety about the future are eradicated. The present is the only time you really have because the past is gone (there is nothing you can do to change it) and the problems of the future may or may not occur. Being fully in the present is called mindfulness and it is the key to liberation and happiness.
So let’s do a short experiment to illustrate just how independent and restless most people’s minds really are:
- Sit down comfortably in a chair, or lie down if you prefer.
- Take a few deep breaths to relax.
- Focus your attention on your breath. Either focus on the air coming in and out of your nostrils, or focus on the expansion and contraction of your diaphragm as you breathe. Breathe normally.
- As you breathe in, count 1. When you exhale, count 2. Then breathe in again and count 3, exhale and count 4, etc. When you reach 10, start over and counting from 1 again.
- Try to do this until you have done the cycle twice. If your mind wanders, as it probably will, return your attention to your breath again without any judgement. That is it.
If you are like most people, you may find it extremely difficult to focus on your breath and nothing else. Some people will find that their mind wanders before they count to 3 or 4, while others may be able to focus on their breath for a little longer. Most people will not be able to make it through the 2 cycles without the ‘monkey mind’ thinking any thoughts about the future or the past. Your mind may suddenly get distracted and think about the laundry that needs to be done or the bills that need to be paid. You may think about the vacation you have planned or wonder what you are going to cook for dinner. You may also think about how your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend hurt you in the past, or about regrets you have about the past. And all this happens even though your task at hand is to merely focus on your breath!
This is how the untrained mind works. It is ill-disciplined, restless and rambunctious. Now imagine how many times in a day your mind does this without you being aware of it. It has been said that the average mind incurs thousands of random thoughts per day, most of which are useless and not beneficial. This is the opposite of mindfulness and is called ‘mindlessness’. Many of these thoughts can actually be harmful in that they are negative and cause unnecessary unhappiness, anger, stress and anxiety. Only a minority of these thoughts are actually useful in helping us solve a problem or make sound decisions.
When we are able to consciously ‘watch’ our thoughts and not identify with them or give them undue power, we greatly diminish our unhappiness, anger and anxiety. We learn to live in the present moment. This is what it means to be mindful. The good news is that we can actually train ourselves to be more conscious and mindful. The most effective way to do this is through meditation. In fact, it is so effective that, more than ever, a large number of medical professionals now recommend meditation as a remedy for a variety of physiological and psychological ills.
Learning to meditate is one of the greatest gifts we can bestow on ourselves. Regular meditation will tame that ‘monkey mind’, afford you peace, happiness and calmness. It can actually change the way our brain functions and make us more positive.
You can really learn to tame your own mind.