Even a few minutes of mindfulness practice daily allows the mind to rest, leaving us refreshed and able to lead with more energy, clarity, and focus.
Many of us have experienced a quiet mind at some moment or another. It may have been an experience in nature; on a mountaintop, sitting by a rushing stream or a quiet lake, watching a beautiful sunset, on a hike. We may also experience stillness when waking up or drifting off to sleep, although for some that may be a time when the mind is particularly active.
However, these times of stillness are rare, and when they do occur, fleeting. We don’t seem to have much control over when or if these moments will occur. We can create the conditions for quietude, such as getting out into nature, but it’s serendipitous whether or not such a moment will come to us. And, as our minds are occupied with the details and tribulations of daily life, it becomes less likely that those moments of real peace will occur.
When I conduct introductory sessions on Mindfulness and Meditation, the most common wish I hear from participants is that mindfulness will silence the overactive mind and that intrusive, unpleasant, and distracting thoughts will “go away” and they will experience that quiet mind. I am sorry to have to let them down. In truth, when people engage in a mindfulness practice or participate in a guided meditation for the first time, not only do their minds often not become quiet but by directing attention towards its workings, they catch a glimpse of how unruly their minds truly are. They may become discouraged before they’ve given mindfulness a chance.
Mindfulness practice, including silent meditation, cannot guarantee us a quiet mind. But, practiced regularly over time, it can produce at least a quieter mind, one that is not pushed and pulled so relentlessly by our involuntary attention.
A participant in a recent introductory session shared that he had been given the meditation instruction from a previous class to count to 100 without thinking of anything else, and to start over anytime his mind wandered. He reported that he had never gotten past 12 before his mind was off racing in multiple directions. He had concluded that he was a failure at meditation.
I on the other hand was amazed that he had made it to 12! Our minds are dominated by thoughts arising from external and internal sources. External sources include our phones and computers, a sudden noise or a pleasant aroma from the kitchen, or the dog barking. Almost any sensory contact has the power to command our attention. The internal source is of course our own mind, to which we will return in a moment.
This vigilance to outside stimuli is hard-wired into us. My cat, asleep beside me, immediately perks up her ears if she hears an unaccustomed sound, or even more attentively if that sound is her food being scooped into her dish. We are constantly scanning our environment for risks and opportunities, and we’re not going to change that. That hard wiring is a survival mechanism to alert us to what is occurring in our immediate environments, and it has served us well over most of our evolutionary journey. This vigilance serves us less well when we are responding to the ping of an email or the buzz in our pocket of another news alert. The threat of a tiger in the bushes is no longer present, but our bodies respond to any sense of contact as though our lives might depend on it.
Our attention is equally grabbed from the latest bulletin from our mind’s thought-generating newsroom. Most of the thoughts which the mind constantly churns out have no more importance or substance than the sound of the wind in the trees outside my office. The difference is that when I hear the wind in the trees, I am well aware that I am neither the wind nor the trees. I don’t hold on to the sound nor do I make much of it. On the other hand, we treat thoughts as though they are important and deserving of our immediate attention. We believe these thoughts came from us, that they are us. Being constantly pulled in all directions by our thoughts can be exhausting.
A mindfulness practice that can help is to consciously bring your voluntary attention to the ongoing stream of thoughts. Try this experiment the next time you are in or near your kitchen and the refrigerator’s compressor is running: That sound is for most of us a background noise that we are rarely if ever aware of. Now bring your full attention to the sound and notice just how noisy the compressor is. If it happens to shut off while you are directing your attention to it, the silence that follows will further emphasize just how noisy it had been.
Similarly, as we begin to notice our thoughts, we may experience them as extremely raucous and uncontrolled, louder, not quieter. Can we notice this without judgment, conclusion, or trying to do anything at all about it? Simply notice the thoughts rising and falling, like the wind in the trees, or the refrigerator in the kitchen. As we continue to note our thoughts without judgment, we may attach to them less frequently, and over time we may notice that they are not pulling us this way and that as much as they previously have. Try it and see.
Mindfulness practice, including silent meditation, cannot guarantee us a quiet mind. But, practiced regularly over time, it can produce at least a quieter mind, one that is not pushed and pulled so relentlessly by our involuntary attention. Even a few minutes of meditation or mindfulness practice daily allows the mind to rest a bit, leaving us refreshed and able to engage with our busy professional and personal lives with more energy, clarity, and focus. The practice of mindfulness increases the likelihood that, over time, more moments of a quiet(er) mind will be available to us.
Additional articles in our series on mindfulness:
Jeremy Seligman is a Senior Partner at Brimstone Consulting Group. He is a former corporate executive with extensive background and experience as an organizational development specialist and executive coach. Jeremy is a longtime practitioner of mindfulness and meditation, and is a certified Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher, certified by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Sounds True, and the Awareness Training Institute.