The first time I practiced meditation, I thought, “How hard can this be? Simply quiet my mind, focus on my breath, and calm my thoughts.”
The thousandth time I practiced meditation, I thought, “How can this be so hard? I can’t quiet my mind, stay focused on my breath, nor calm my thoughts.”
My thoughts were all over the place. Just when I thought I had them corralled, my mind would be off somewhere else leaving me completely oblivious.
Our thoughts are an incessant stream of concepts – sometimes focused and clearly directed – other times haphazardly jumping from one topic to another. But always flowing, like a raging river.
And perhaps most disconcerting, it seems as if our thoughts just happen. They come from some unknown source, instantly appearing in our brain and commanding attention – albeit oftentimes unconsciously.
The Practicing Mind
Where do these thoughts come from? And how can I possibly gain control over them?
When I first read Thomas Sterner’s powerful book, The Practicing Mind, I was struck by how the foundation of any effective learning – namely practice – can be transformed from drudgery to enjoyment.
When we set a goal – for instance, the ability to consistently quiet our mind and control our thoughts – by definition, we are failing until we reach that goal. Every day that I’m not able to achieve that state, I have fallen short of the goal.
This mindset of basing success on achieving the goal can greatly hinder progress.
However, when I focused on the practice of quieting my mind and immersing myself in the mechanics of such learning, then I experienced two amazing outcomes. First, the frustration was gone because my measure of success was no longer the attainment of the goal. Instead, success was related to my focus on the mechanics of practicing – independent of the outcome.
But guess what else happened? The outcome started improving.
The less I measured myself on the goal of quieting my mind but rather on embracing the practice elements, the more I was able to control my thoughts and settle my mind.
The Benefit of Controlling our Thoughts
So why go to all this bother of trying to control our thoughts?
There’s a line in A Course in Miracles, borrowing from Proverbs, that reads, “As a man thinketh, so does he perceive.”
In other words, everything we experience – EVERYTHING – is the result of our thoughts. At his lectures, Sterner would often ask participants this provocative question, “If you didn’t think, could you feel stress?”
We’ve so conditioned ourselves to believe that our thoughts are shaped by what’s going on in the world and our lives. But it’s actually the other way around.
Our entire sense of reality is based on our thoughts. All of our emotions stem from our thoughts. Thus, if we can control our thoughts, we control our lives.
The corollary is Sterner’s quote which leads off this essay:
“If you are not in control of your thoughts then you are not in control of yourself.”
And one of the most effective ways to begin controlling our thoughts is through the practice of meditation.
Being Terrible at Meditation
But, you might suggest, I’m terrible at meditation.
Because whenever I try, I find that my thoughts keep running away from me.
Really? Congratulations. Then you’re actually effective at meditation.
You see, the act of catching thoughts running away means that we are no longer lost to our mind.
The you who recognizes that your thoughts have run off is no longer the you of your thoughts. And that’s what meditation is all about. Becoming the observer of our thoughts instead of lost in them.
When we catch our mind wandering, we’ve entered that observership state. And from there, we gently bring our attention back to the practice.
I once heard someone describe the mind like a snow globe – a glass sphere filled with water and particles that look like snow. When you shake it, the scene transforms into a “snowy” blizzard. But once you set it down, the snow gently settles to the bottom.
It’s a perfect metaphor for our mind. When our thoughts are streaming around, anxiously contemplating the future and regretfully rueing the past, we’re caught in that blizzard. Yet all we need to do is gently allow our “snow thoughts” to settle.
The Joy of Practice
By shifting our focus away from basing success on the attainment of the end goal and more on immersing ourselves in the process of practicing – a new world of joyful serenity opens up.
Failure no longer exists. We are right where we need to be for what we need to learn.
Committing to the process of consciously practicing is all that’s required.
From The Practicing Mind:
Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing. When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goal comes toward you with frictionless ease.
The more we practice controlling our thoughts, the more peace we gain in our lives.
In the powerful words of A Course in Miracles:
“Change but your mind on what you want to see, and all the world must change accordingly.”
Enjoy your practice!
Join me in our upcoming live, online video class where we’ll explore these concepts, the nature of mind, and how we can master the habits of living the life we want. I look forward to seeing you then.