I’ve often heard people say, “I can’t meditate because I can’t stop thinking,” or something very similar to that. Fortunately, we don’t have to stop thinking or even slow down our thoughts to experience the peace that mindfulness practice can bring. Curious? Read on.
Some things can’t be stopped, part 1
Between 2005 and 2012, a major automobile manufacturer ended up recalling millions of cars due to something called “Sudden Unintended Acceleration.” To make a long story short, while these cars were already being driven on the roads, they would behave as if the driver had suddenly stomped on the gas, even though they hadn’t. No matter how hard the drivers applied the brakes, they often couldn’t stop the cars. Unfortunately, this led to multiple deaths, which of course led to the recalls.
Some things can’t be stopped, part 2
Sometimes, our brains seem to work exactly how we expect them to work. We’re able to concentrate on our tasks or on the people we’re interacting with and we’re able to let go of those things when it’s time to relax. But often, and for many of us, there are times when we can’t stop thinking about our to-do lists, the events from the past that didn’t turn out how we hoped they would, or worries about how the future is going to turn out. No matter how much we try to distract ourselves with media, substances, or other stimuli, we either can’t let go or we can only do so briefly before the thoughts come rushing back. No amount of “braking” is enough to override the gas pedals in our heads.
Shifting into neutral
During the automobile recalls, some of my more car-savvy friends wondered aloud why the drivers experiencing the “Sudden Unintended Acceleration” didn’t just shift into neutral. They didn’t have to stop the acceleration, they just had to disengage the wheels from the motor. The motor could then rev all the way to its limits, but it wouldn’t be driving the car anymore. The driver and the passengers would be safe. Unfortunately, though this would have been an effective solution, the option simply didn’t occur to many drivers. They weren’t aware.
When we’re learning to meditate and our minds are busy, we often aren’t aware that we don’t have to find a way to stop them to find safety and stillness. We need to learn how to shift into neutral. Unfortunately, we sometimes hear instructions like, “clear your mind,” or, “stop thinking.” Of course this just reinforces our incorrect belief that we should somehow be able to stop our minds or otherwise control our thoughts. When we inevitably fail in this effort, we begin to believe that we can’t meditate, but the truth is, we’re just focused on the wrong thing.
Shifting from thinking to observing
By default, we often are focused on our thoughts. It’s this attention to them that gives them the power to drive us. Fortunately, shifting our minds into neutral can be as simple as shifting our cars into neutral, as long as we are aware of the possibility. To find relief from our racing minds, we don’t have to stop them, we just have to shift our attention. We can pay attention to the feel of our feet on the floor or the feel of a breath coming in or going out. We can pay attention to the sounds or sights around us. Any sensory experience is a worthy place to set our attention. It’s likely that we’ll have to make the switch in attention from thoughts to direct experience, from thinking to observing, over and over again for a while because anything new takes practice. But after some repetition, we can get quite good at it. Making this switch is one of the skills participants in our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes learn and practice. It’s a skill you can learn too, one that helps us find the safety and stillness so many of us are missing.