How mindfulness can help us to relieve the chattering mind

The thinking mind is an excellent tool. Yet, we can let it rule our days by reacting to its impulses, boarding its constant thought trains, or tranced out in fantasises of our own making. Our daily experience can often amount to little more than watching this phenomenon, this picture show that is so enthralling, so captivating, so habitual, that we struggle to rest from it.

In piecing together fragments of information and experience, we write elaborate stories. We are in other words, highly skilled creative writers. We cannot bear to allow these fragments to remain as fragments. Rather, we spin together a highly complex narrative around them, and these become the stories we tell ourselves; our attempts to make meaning out of what may have no apparent meaning. Take the example of walking down the street and seeing someone we know who seems to ignore us, when in fact they have simply not seen us. How quickly we can conjure up a whole network of possible causes and effects! If only we could get paid for our finely finished tales, we would all be financially secure!

These stories are so good we can barely put them down. Just like a great novel, we are gripped by the characters, the incidents, the dramas. However, unlike a great novel, we find it so much more difficult to put our own narratives down. We seek resolution, and our mind won't rest until it gets it. If only we could learn to drop the stories, even for a short while!

Through mindfulness meditation, we can train ourselves to do this. By observing this trickery, we can just let our thoughts be; we can allow the fragments of experience just to be the fragments that they are. By taking our attention and energy away from thoughts, such as onto the breath or body, we can step a little way back from them. Instead of being right up at the screen in a cinema hall, we can move to the back of the hall and see the imagery, the thoughts, for what they are. With practice, we may even begin to notice the movie camera; the source of our thoughts and images.

Such 'stepping back' allows us space to evaluate the contents of our minds. We may realise that much of what we think up or imagine, are merely products of our hopes, fears and anxieties. We may be able to judge what is worth pursuing and what is worth letting go of, thus freeing up our energy and allowing us to focus on the things that matter.

Try this mindfulness exercise.

Settle into a meditative posture, and bring your attention to your breathing. Observe the whole journey of the breath: noticing the in-breath, the pause before the out-breath, the out-breath, and then the pause before the out-breath. As thoughts arise, label them (e.g. 'thinking about feeding the cat'), then bring your attention back to the breath. Keep on doing this, no matter how many times the mind drifts off. Notice how quickly the mind begins to string a narrative together. Notice also how the mind justifies this thinking process. Just notice, then gently bring the attention back to the breath. The more we practice, the better we get at this.

What we can begin to notice after a while with this practice, are our habitual patterns of thought, the responses to experience that we have learnt throughout our lifetime. We can notice how we seem to always react in certain way, when a particular thought arises. For example, a feeling of anger when we bring to mind a certain experience or person. Not by making great efforts to change these ways of thinking, but by simply observing and acknowledging their power, can we begin to change course.

One valuable way of spending time with our minds and the stories they create is to spend a few hours on a retreat. Try one of our regular day retreats, beginning in March 2017.

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