By April Hadley, LLMSW
Who am I? Do people like me? Is my work good enough? Am I failing at being a parent? What if I don’t get that job? I know the rattling noise in my car is going to be a huge repair bill!
Can you relate to any of these thoughts?
There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, with nothing to focus on, the brain will begin to search for potential threats in the environment. It is a mechanism designed to keep you safe, but it can leave you feeling like your mind is ricocheting out of control. When the mind is wandering here, there and everywhere, it is easy to become reactive. You may say things you regret, lose your temper or forget to follow through on commitments.
Good news! You can learn how to settle your mind.
Give Your Mind a Place to Sit
Rather than letting your mind wander, give it a place to “sit.”
Imagine you are sitting in a sturdy, comfortable chair. See yourself sitting in an upright and dignified manner. Feel the steadiness of the chair and how it helps your body feel steady.
The first part of mindfulness meditation is like sitting in a chair. Because your attention will naturally be pulled in a million directions, you need to give your mind a place to “sit.” The classic place for the attention to “sit” is the breath. When you focus on the breath, it is like sitting in a steady chair.
However, when you try to focus on the breath you will notice that it does not want to stay “seated.” Your attention will stand up and begin to chase after any number of thoughts – thoughts of the future and the past, a daydream, work left unfinished, a memory, a worry, a plan, etc. Rather than getting lost, remember you have a chair you can return to. A thought appears, you get up from your seat; you follow it for a moment, but this time you choose to sit back down and feel the breath once more.
Your mind may wander away from the breath many times. It’s okay. It takes time to teach your mind how to take a seat. Eventually it will get the idea and you will experience your mind’s ability to be calm and steady.
You can give your mind a place to sit other than the breath such as listening to sounds, giving your full attention to one task at a time, feeling your feet making contact with the floor as you walk or feeling your body sitting in an actual chair! The practice is the same; when you notice your attention has wandered away, invite your attention to sit back down.
Respond with Wisdom
A focused mind feels more pleasant and relaxed but don’t stop here! Use the stability and the steadiness of your “seated” mind in the service of wisdom and understanding.
Even though you have given the mind a place to sit, you will continue to feel the tug to get up and wander after a variety of thoughts, feelings, urges and actions. But now that you know how to stay seated, you can practice feeling the familiar tugs and pulls without actually getting up. You can stay seated with the breath and begin to gather vital information about what causes you to “get up” from your chair without actually getting up. You can choose to stay seated until a wise action becomes clear.
Let’s say you scheduled an appointment with a landscape designer for 4 pm on Monday. Monday arrives and before you know it, it is 5:30 pm and the designer has not shown up for the appointment. You could fire off an angry text or email demanding an explanation or you could choose to “sit” in your chair and feel your breath. You could choose to feel the tug of your angry thoughts and notice how they are trying to pull you out of the chair. You could decide to sit long enough to let the mind and emotions settle. You may still end up sending a text or email that asks for an explanation but when you learn how to settle the mind first, you will begin to respond from a place of wisdom and clarity.
“Just go into the room and put one chair in the center. Take the seat in the center of the room, open the doors and the windows, and see who comes to visit. You will witness all kinds of scenes and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable. Your only job is to stay in your seat. You will see it all arise and pass, and out of this, wisdom and understanding will come.” Achaan Chah