Taming the Tyranny of the Busy Mind
This morning, like most mornings, it didn’t take long after I awoke for the to-do list to set up shop in my mind. I got going with some left-over cleaning from last night, some list-making for the day, getting that invoice sitting on the kitchen table into an envelope (not because it was so urgent, but because it was sitting right there on the kitchen table…). The momentum of Doing began to carry me into the day.
Then, I stopped. Like most mornings, I sat down to meditate. It’s a habit now, but still––after all these years–I’m amazed by the seductiveness and sheer power of the Busy-Busy, Get-It-Done mind.
I came to physical stillness but the tireless thought-generating machine in my head was anything but still. Eventually, without any conscious intent on my part, something shifted. I felt it first physically–a further relaxing, as if the perimeter of my body softened and expanded into the space around it.
Next, the witnessing part of my mind came online; and with more ability to observe, all the thoughts–plans, to-do’s, likes, dislikes, worries–lost a good deal of their intensity and importance.
Replacing some of the movement and noise of thoughts, there was stillness. And silence. And a few, very welcome creative thoughts. And gratitude, for the ability to pause and drop down, for the riches available when I do so, and simply for being alive.
Just as I am amazed by the power of Busy-mind, I am equally amazed by the power of Pausing. Busy-mind tells us that it has the keys to the kingdom, that it has the solution to all problems, the answer to all needs. Under its influence, we can easily forget how powerful (and necessary) it is to pause.
So how do we remember?
Sometimes we don’t have to. Sometimes a fruitful pause just happens by grace. For no apparent reason, we stop, or are stopped by something simple, like when we’re walking along, lost in thought, vision trained on the ground, and suddenly we look up from the pavement to the wide open sky.
And we slow down, take a deep breath, get a broader perspective, appreciate the beauty of Sky. We are lifted in that moment, refreshed, maybe energized, maybe calmed down. In times of grace, we don’t have to remember that it’s important to pause; the effect of the pause itself tells us what its value is.
Most of the time, though, and more and more in our ever-plugged-in culture, we can’t rely on grace to help us remember that there is more to life than keeping moving, head down, gaze fixed on the pavement (or on whichever screen is handy).
The thing is, from the point of view of Busy-mind, there is no value in the Pause. It never has and never will be the place from which remembering the importance of pausing will happen. Busy-mind has its own pace (The Faster the Better) and its own priorities (Get Stuff Done), and slowing down, or—dare I say it—stopping, are nothing more than obstacles to its purpose.
How, then, do we remember?
The self-improvement marketplace has no shortage of ways to help us remember to pause, from mindfulness Apps to Zen retreats. In the 45-or-so years of working with my own mind, and the 25-or-so years of helping others via my workshops and writing, I’ve come across a lot of helpful tools for slowing down, finding balance, getting centered, taking stock, stepping back, looking inward, and remembering to pause.
But, I’m for keeping it simple.
If I had to name just one essential ingredient for keeping Busy-mind from running our lives, it would be this:
Have a practice. I know. Unglamorous, but true. I would say, ‘Have a contemplative practice’ if it wouldn’t scare people away. But that’s what is needed: a contemplative practice. That is, something that focuses your attention more inwardly than outwardly, and more on being than on doing. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be meditating, or journaling, or writing poetry, or walking in the woods, or staring at the ocean, or tending a garden or doing yoga.
What is important is not the specific activity, but the fact that it is a practice, meaning something that you do daily, or perhaps weekly, with some consistency. Why? Because the momentum of Busy-mind is powerful, and it’s simply too easy to forget why we would want to listen to anything but its directives. But with a practice, we have momentum of another kind. It’s the momentum of pausing regularly, day in and day out, week in and week out, whether we feel like it or not, whether or not Busy-mind is whispering—or yelling—in our ear to keep pushing on.
I didn’t sit down to meditate this morning because I truly remembered how valuable it would be to interrupt my progress in checking things off the list. I sat down to meditate because that’s my practice. That’s what I do in the morning. The momentum of years of practice is what got me to the cushion. It was only after I got there and sat for a while that I remembered why I do this.
Most of us, day to day, don’t feel any urgency to pause and take a break from Getting Stuff Done. The urgency is usually reserved for our to-do list, and Busy-mind affirms that that is as it should be. But, what would happen if we turned that formula on its head? What if we could see that much of what we are busy with has absolutely no urgency at all, and in fact, might be okay not getting done….ever? What if we could remember that what we urgently need is to unhook from Doing, unplug from our devices, and sit down with ourselves for a few minutes? We just might find that therein lie the keys to the kingdom.
Abby Seixas is a psychotherapist, speaker and author of Finding the Deep River Within: A Woman’s Guide to Recovering Balance & Meaning in Everyday Life (Jossey-Bass, 2007). She teaches courses and writes about how to live a soulful life in a speed-obsessed world. Her television appearances include The Today Show and the Hallmark Channel, and her work has been featured in O. The Oprah Magazine, Self, Woman’s Day, Fitness, Body + Soul, and The Boston Globe. Abby is also an exhibited calligrapher, amateur choral singer, happy gardener, and mother of two grown children. Visit Abby at her website, and on Facebook , Twitter, Google+ and Linked In.