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How to stop your mind from talking all the time

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A couple of Sundays ago, I left for a friend’s house to watch the Oscars, and decided to keep from talking in my head the whole way there.

I’ve been doing micro-experiments like this a lot recently, committing to total presence for very short stretches of time. Can I, for example, keep my mind on what’s happening the entire time I’m doing the dishes? After each little exercise I can go back to my normal distracted stupor if I want to.

So for the 30 minutes or so between my door and my friend’s, including a stop at the store, I dared myself to keep my attention on the current real-life scene only, and not get drawn into any mental dialogues. Put another way, I decided to put words aside for a little while, and observe everything else.

It worked. The talkative part of my brain mostly shut up, and I discovered for the 600th time that the world is intrinsically beautiful and peaceful whenever I manage to take a break from thinking and talking about it.

Ideally I’d spend my whole life in this state — when you’re just observing things and it really doesn’t matter what happens, because it’s all very curious and beautiful, and if trouble does show up you’re already in the best headspace to deal with it. You get the specific sense that you don’t need to be anywhere else, which makes you realize how rarely you feel like that.

The most prominent quality of this state of presence is the quiet that comes over the outside world. You can still hear the city noise and traffic, but the loudest thing has gone silent, which is your normal mental commentary.

I’ve had this state happen before, but it always seemed to come randomly. After this most recent experience, I realized something that should have been obvious: if you practice doing it, it happens more. 

Putting your words away for a bit

I know a lot of you have experimented with intentionally living in the present. If you’re like me, you’ve done some “spiritual” seeking of your own, had experiences of intense presence, and discovered the incredible benefits of being in that state. You may have read The Power of Now or Wherever You Go There You Are, had an epiphany about the incomparable value of staying present, and felt like things would be different after that.

But somehow it doesn’t stick. Being present stays in your thoughts as something worthwhile, but which you can get to later, like getting into shape or learning the guitar.

This latest experience happened because I made a conscious agreement to stay with the moment as it actually is. That means I simply agreed not to bother engaging with words, internally or externally, unless there was a clear reason to. And wow did my experience change quickly.

Why not make that agreement all the time?

Well, our words defend us against parts of reality we don’t like. You don’t have to open up emotionally to anything if you’re already occupied with dissecting it or labeling it or otherwise evaluating it. So in order to drop the words from a given moment, you have to agree to invite all the details into your experience without judgment, and that isn’t something most of us have a lot of practice at.

So you fall into a comfortable train of thought, maybe about how things should be, or what they would be like with a different party in power, or what you should have said to that guy, or how did bus fare get to be $2.55? — and in seconds the present has become only a faint background to your thoughts. This is a bad habit and we are practicing it all the time.

The loudest thing in the world

We typically spend way more time thinking than we need to — like fifty to a hundred times more — and it creates a default background of stress and preoccupation. It keeps us from enjoying ordinary things, like putting on clothes or crossing parking lots.

These little things constitute the vast majority (like 99+%) of a person’s life, and they can actually be fun and poignant when the mind isn’t constantly talking.

Imagine life getting ninety-some times more enjoyable. That’s what we’re leaving on the table when we leave our attention hanging on an internal dialogue by default. It’s not the world that’s stressful. The outside world is a lot more peaceful than it seems, and this becomes clear whenever you take a break from thinking.

The thinking mind is like a perpetually-running chainsaw that thinks everything is a tree. It will use any excuse to rev up and start shredding something. Its purpose is to solve problems, so it wants everything to be a problem.

Most moments in your life, there’s no real need to do anything but observe. No analysis or figuring is necessary, but the mind really wants to do some anyway.

The thinking mind is a tool, and we can learn to put it down when it’s not needed, which is most of the time. We have an enormous amount to gain by simply thinking less, and that means learning how to put this overused tool down.

How to get better at this

A complete rundown of “Living in the present” skills would be too big for one article, but we have a very clear starting point: the path back to the present moment lies in paying attention to physical, concrete details. Your body, your clothes, the air, the background sounds, the surface you’re standing on.

Physical things only exist in the present. Keep your attention on something physical and that means you’re keeping it on something that is actually happening.

Basically, the mind will run its mouth off whenever it gets a chance, which is virtually all the time, except when:

a) You’re doing something that demands you attend to something physical. This is why people like death sports, because you are forced back into the present (or else you die.) But it’s also why we go see movies — you’re parked facing a fifty-foot screen, everything else is blacked out, and a well-engineered story is blasted at you at pant-shaking volumes.

or

b) You make a habit of returning your mind to something physical whenever you notice it’s wandered off. The only place it can really wander to is your thoughts, because everything else is part of the present moment.

Your thinking mind is an absolute wizard at drawing your attention away from the present. It can run circles around you. But it can’t stop you from practicing putting your attention where you want it, which is on somewhere in the real world.

Returning your attention to the present is a fairly simple, learnable skill, which can eventually become a reflex. Rather than try to do it everywhere all the time, it’s easiest to pick particular part of your routine to apply it to. Make small commitments and follow through. For example, I started with doing the dishes. Since then, I’ve also added walking and putting on clothes to the short list of activities I’m committed to doing mindfully.

If you ever feel like you don’t know how to do it, just put your attention into some part of your body. When you notice it’s wandered back to some words in your head again, put it back.

And if you’ve never read The Power of Now, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. I’m sure most of this audience already owns it. If you’ve read it already, I urge you to give it another read. You’ve probably grown a lot in the mean time and it will seem like a new book. The audio versions of Eckhart Tolle’s work are even better.

The basic skill of putting your attention somewhere on purpose has a million applications, like defusing cravings, nipping bad moods in the bud, preventing yourself from being offended, and getting more work done, to name a few. I’ll cover some of them in future articles. For now, consider it the most highly transferable skill you’ll ever learn.

***

If you’re interested in living more in the present

I’ve been writing a lot recently about the habit of living mindfully and its incredible benefits. I’ve been getting a lot of emails and comments from you on the topic, and it’s been my personal focus for the last year.  (Some related articles: One | Two | Three | Four | Five )

Exploring mindfulness has truly transformed my life and I want to help other people do the same thing. Over the past few months I’ve put together a full-length guide on making mindfulness a lasting habit. I’ll have a lot more details later, but in the mean time you can learn more here.

Photo by Thomas Leuthard

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Aditya Thakur March 10, 2014 at 12:38 am

It is a great experience when you are completely in the moment. For me, it’s still hard to do it intentionally for long periods of time. But sometimes I do activities that automatically require such a state. Like cycling. When you are climbing a hill on a cycle all thoughts stop except how to push the pedal down one more time. The thoughts don’t stop completely because an internal dialogue goes on about motivation and how much of the hill is left to climb. But still it feels great to be completely present in the moment and not think about past or future.

Running, playing guitar, reading and writing are all activities that help me get in the “zone”. I tried to do it while doing simple things such as eating or changing clothes but it didn’t work. I think I need to practice more. Thanks for the inspiration.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:00 am

Sports do make it easier, but I urge you to try it during more ordinary activities. Make the commitment small. I remember another blogger posting about learning “mindful eating” once. He said all you have to do to get started is to commit to being mindful of the first three bites and the last three bites. That will go a long way.

StephInBerkeley March 10, 2014 at 1:27 am

fabulously put. and always a great reminder. i have had some of the most stressful days of my life this past week (divorcing/moving/threats/things going wrong) and interrupted a program on stress i was watching to read the article as it appeared in my inbox. i’m glad i did. it’s helped bring me back from the madness.

and on a side note, i have noticed how the stress is affecting my body, my memory is gone, emotions quick and intense, and my hunger signals absent. it’s only because i have been practicing mindfulness in recent years that i so distinctly notice the differences in my body. But it still takes moments like this (a good article or program or connection with another life form or simply choosing mindfulness, *if* you can manage as much in times of acute stress) to bring me back to sanity and peace.

as always, thanks, David.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:02 am

I am in the habit now of looking at what my body’s doing whenever something happens that makes me stressed out. Often I just have an unpleasant memory. Looking at what certain thoughts do to your body helps you realize they’re just thoughts.

Karen J March 11, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Zen Hugs {{{StephInBerkeley}}} for your current stress-state…
and Blessings for “more mindfulness-in-spite-of” …

Mira D March 10, 2014 at 1:46 am

Thank you for this.
I have a very short attention span and my mind is a chatterbox…anything to quieten it would be a lifesaver.
So a sincere thank you.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:03 am

Good luck Mira. The attention span is a muscle like any other.

Zoe L March 10, 2014 at 2:07 am

Hi David, have you ever done mindfulness meditation exercises? It’s been on my list (ironically!) for a few years but all my experiments with committing to it everyday failed until this year.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:04 am

What kind of exercises do you mean? I do all kinds of exercises of my own design as I described in the post, and I have also done sitting meditation intermittently over the years.

Simon March 12, 2014 at 2:36 am

I guess Zoe means something like “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR). You shold definitely google it if you’ve never heard about it.

David Cain March 12, 2014 at 8:40 am

I’m a big fan of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is a major proponent of MBSR, and runs a MBSR clinic. His books are great.

Adrienne W March 10, 2014 at 2:31 am

Hi David, a beautiful and entertaining post. Beautiful due to the clarity and practicality with which you’ve pared down to the nucleus of a concept that, as you’ve noted would take vastly longer to cover comprehensively. Entertaining because your analogies referencing mind chatter as an incessant chainsaw and cinema volume as ‘pant-shaking’, had me laughing out loud at their accuracy. Thank you! A timely reminder to revisit my copy of The Power of Now.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:05 am

It is a big topic. There are so many applications for mindfulness. I’ll cover the most useful ones I know in other posts.

George March 10, 2014 at 2:38 am

I wonder whether much of the difficulty arises because we’re doing this the wrong way round; we’re making the same mistake but in a ‘better direction’. That is, we notice our attention is focused on thoughts so we instead re-focus it on something physical. But we’re still focusing! That’s a pretty effortful way to achieve being in the moment: focusing in effect means ‘forcefully excluding’. (And when you try to exclude thoughts, they often just fight harder for your attention, like trying to deliberately ignore a background noise instead of accepting it.)

Perhaps what we really need to do isn’t redirect our attention, but expand it to include more? So if you notice you’re narrowed onto your thoughts, that’s okay, it’s just a bit limited – so you expand out to include your body, and expand out to include the space around you. You loosen your grip on your attention.

‘Expanding’ to include the background space around you and becoming aware of the volume of space your body is occupying is very loosening and ‘wakening’ I find.

After all, thoughts are just as ‘present moment’ as bodily sensations and external events, and passing thoughts may contain useful information and ideas so we wouldn’t want to totally exclude them – it’s just that you don’t want to be completely focused on them.

“Don’t focus on the dishes, just add them to whatever experience you’re having”, perhaps.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:11 am

Hmm, I actually don’t think I used the verb “focus” in the article. I think of it as “putting” or “placing” your attention on some aspect of the present whenever you notice you’re talking in your head.

It doesn’t need to be trained on one tiny foci, as in formal meditation. When I return my attention to the moment, I often will notice the air or background din first, but I don’t require myself to concentrate on it. I just want to make sure my attention is somewhere on the “real world” side of my experience.

George March 10, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Hmm – nor you did, it was just how I read it. Which is telling all on its own…

I do wonder why it is that we get lost in thoughts though, rather than simply be aware of them in addition to whatever we’re doing. Is it related to how we learn to use attention as we’re growing up? Or do we accumulate physical tension which draws us inwards – e.g. accumulated tension in head and neck?

The requirement, as you mention, to drop judgement maybe nails it: any move away from acceptance implies avoidance or planning change, which leads straight into thought-world.

One tip I read for this (for posture and office work) was to always include in your awareness the sensation of your feet on the ground – or to centre yourself in the abdomen or just behind the forehead, two locations which seem to spontaneously open you out. Trick is, remembering to remember when you get particularly involved or distracted.

Attaching it to more specific, common tasks is a great idea for practice.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:13 am

The difference is really whether you’re aware of the thinking or not. You can’t get lost in a train of thought unless you’ve lost awareness that you are currently thinking. But that’s easy to do. When become aware that I’m thinking I quickly realize I’m not doing it for any particular reason, 9 times out of 10. So I bring my attention back to the physical world.

d.s March 10, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Well said, David, and close to the heart of the matter. Turns out there’s only one side of any experience – the ‘reality’ side. It comes down to how much of this real experience we include in our attention, or consciousness. If we narrow our attention to our thoughts – the easy and gratifying self-involved use of the mind – our experience is like a pebble rolling around in a pothole on the river bottom. But if we change the flow of our consciousness just enough to lift the pebble out of its hole, we experience more of the river itself. It’s just the nature of the pebble to find comfy little potholes.

Your article is about lifting the pebble, but the danger here is expecting the pebble to lift itself. It’s difficult to use a self-involved mind as a tool to direct the mind’s attention – as it will inevitably fall back into some hole or another. The ‘egoic mind’, as per Tolle, is an untrustworthy source of what’s real – it only likes the hole it’s carved out for itself, going round and round. Using consciousness however to return to ‘the moment’ (an accurate synonym for ‘reality’, or ‘the given’, or ‘the actual’) – to rise out of the self-involved mind – brings us into a fuller experience of being. Using ‘directed’ consciousness to ask “what is real?” brings the mind out of itself – returning it to the flow of existence.

Existence is an amazing place to be – even when the experience of it is confined to the self-involved mind – so long as we don’t get stuck there. This is where the heat of conflict and resistance builds, wearing the pebble down. Some of the other commenters remarked about how useful or pleasant it is to ‘think’. This is most true – so long as the thinking is experienced as part of a larger context of consciousness. Perhaps what we’re all striving for is a trip down the river (which only takes place NOW) where we are free to briefly explore any little pothole or crevice we encounter on the way.

George March 11, 2014 at 4:29 am

Excellent.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:15 am

Well put, d.s

Jacqueline May 9, 2014 at 2:10 am

Thank you. Reading David and then learning more from contributors is one amazing classroom!
So, from now on when my head aches with a million thoughts I will say out loud…What is real in this moment? Focusing on just making an observation of where, what, how and why I am in that moment is practice enough for now.

Daniel March 10, 2014 at 3:48 am

Hi David, Hi Everyone,

I’ve tried doing this over the last couple of years and for me it relieves brain fatigue i.e. your brain felling emotionally tired. Particularly when you have a few different projects on the go.

10 months ago I became a father for the first time. To someone who likes (no, obsesses about) planning and organising, having a little person to love, help grow and nurture completely blew up my internal hard drive. I had thoughts about every subject under the sun and then some.

First thing in the morning when I wake up is worst, just as I’m getting in to the shower – I seem to think of the same issues all the time. Money, Work and the future.

I’ve recently started to write about being somewhere different. I focus my mind on somewhere isolated. My favourite Go To place is a vision I create of a Tibetan Monastery which I view from a far, looking at the white walls and a snow storm enveloping the whole building, looking at this play out, from the side of a mountain on the other side of the valley. I imagine the noise of the air and the feel of the cold snow.

It’s a heck of a lot different from wasting energy thinking about “where I’ll be in 5 years time”, when I should be doing something as easy going as having a shower.

It puts my, mind at rest, slows me down and makes me feel refreshed.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:14 am

Whatever works. Waking up is a really tough part of the day to do this in, especially if you are a long-time worrier. Usually my first thought of the day is negative. Sometimes I remember to tell myself “It’s ok!” the first time I have a worrisome thought (which is usually within 5 seconds of waking). It works when I remember.

Mirge March 10, 2014 at 3:49 am

Hello, David. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and while I agree with what I’ve read already, this post was controversial to me. You are, the way I see it, making internal dialogue sound bad if you use it all the time, which doesn’t seem so to me at all. Here’s why:

I like to have of myself an image of a thinker – a guy to whom people come for ideas, problem solving, advices and critique. I agree with you saying that mind is the greatest tool when it comes to solving anything, and I absolutely enjoying doing it. However, unlike many people, I enjoy thinking very much even when it comes to internal dialogue. There are times when the dialogue turns into “why is it bad and how to do it better”, and sometimes those are, truly, unnecessary, but for me this doesn’t mean it’s bad (although I think I’m not seeing the whole picture around the thing).

Something of a year ago I liked to think of myself as an Asperger’s autist (this is self-diagnosis based on the qualities listed on Wikipedia, so it is, of course, not necessarily true), since my worldview seems to (according to other people’s words) differ very much from most of whom I’ve met. What people learn about other people (emotions and their release, motivations, wishes and needs etc.) by just observing and imbibing with no effort, I have to learn consciously, by thinking about how is it working; on the other hand, I’m this “learn-by-observing” type when it comes to mechanics and electronics, among other things.

As such, I’m very versed with sciences and abstract concepts, but another human’s mind is a dark place for me. I had to work hard to make myself understand how in ages do people think and why do they do that, and thinking, coupled with outer-world experiences (including TV and movies), was very helpful with that, as I achieved surprisingly much.

* * *

Now, I wrote those paragraphs before I realized that all of what I was trying to achieve was problem solving, as everything is, like you said, essentially a problem to me: people doing bad stuff (I should tell them how to do better stuff and how to do better), among many other things. It, however, doesn’t seem like a bad thing to me: I like solving problems. While everything to me is a problem that can be solved, I put my effort into making things around me better or showing others how to do so themselves. This is what some of my art – I’m a writer – and my blog are made for.

If you have such or a similar experience, David or any of his readers, please share it: any external point of view would be of help.

Thank you for this post, David, and for many other ones I’ve already read and\or about to read. You’re doing a marvelous work: to say that my native Russia is low on such people who could help by sharing is to say nothing, both real life- and Internet-wise. Keep doing what you’re doing: people really benefit from it. :)

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:21 am

If there really is a purpose to any particular stretch of thinking, then do it. I’m not saying thinking is bad. But the vast majority of our thinking is compulsive and has no real purpose, and no real-world outcome except distracting us and stressing us out.

While everything to me is a problem that can be solved, I put my effort into making things around me better or showing others how to do so themselves.

If you are actually improving the world with your trains of thought, then great. But I think it is easy to convince ourselves that our judgments of other people somehow make the world more just, or our internal criticisms change the way others do things. In my experience we rarely act on these thoughts, we just seek a low-level comfort in them, at the cost of experiencing the outside world as it really is.

Mirge March 10, 2014 at 10:22 am

Thank you for your answer.

Somehow, hours after reading your blog post I noticed myself _not thinking_. There were some “background computing”, of course, but I heard no internal dialogue whatsoever. As you said, it felt great – “serenity” is what I called it in rare glimpses of the dialogue breaking throught the silence before shutting it again. I also noticed that it’s much easier when you are in somebody’s company: you focus on people and not on yourself even if you (the people) are not talking at the moment.

On the topic of low-level comforting thoughts: I know what you mean. I’ve noticed this in my behavior, and, gladly, I’m working on it: I tell myself that those people that are unknown to me and who I will probably never see and\or remember again are non of my business. It helps. :) I hope somebody will also make use of it.

Thank you for your blogging, David. Keep up the good work.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:17 am

Yes, company sure helps to stay conscious, and I’m getting better at reminding myself to become totally conscious before I meet up with someone.

Ric March 10, 2014 at 4:25 am

Hi David,
I wounder if part of the problem is the way we are all brought up on a diet of TV or radio always or frequently on in the background. We are simply not trained to cope with the absence of background noise, so fill any silence with our own mental background noise.
Have a great day.
Ric

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:24 am

I think so. Today we’re exposed to other people’s verbal thoughts up to 100% of the day. And with smart-devices we can engage with words all day if we want.

Free to Pursue March 11, 2014 at 10:03 am

That is a tug of war I have repeatedly experienced in the workplace. How can we be mentally present in a meeting if we are expected to be paying constant attention to, and selectively responding to, incoming emails? Constant multi-tasking is only compounding the challenges if being in the “now.

DiscoveredJoys March 10, 2014 at 4:37 am

Good morning David & everyone (your time zone may differ).

I’ve been playing with a concept about ‘the voice in your head’ for a little while, and it seems to complement David’s article.

My suspicion is that the ‘conscious’ mind is an evolutionary adaptation to allow individuals to second guess themselves. Although animals with larger brains all have some flexibility to not always react the same way to the same stimulus, the use of words and symbolism have turbo charged this second-guess ability in ourselves – to the point where we allow it to dominate our interactions with the external world. Yet our second guesses to not carry a guarantee of being correct, they take up a great deal of mental room and effort, and they can become detached from reality.

The analogy I toy with is that the conscious wordy mind is like a back seat driver. Nag, nag, nag. Yes, sometimes the back seat driver can give good advice about which turning to take but at other times it distracts us and is blind to the indicators on the dashboard. Or can go on and on about a turning we should have taken.

The voice in our minds, second guessing, can be useful but it is not always necessary and has even become socially accepted as the defining feature of our minds. Too much of a good thing can be harmful.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:27 am

It was a big shift for me to stop viewing the nagging voice as me. That was another insight from Eckhart Tolle. I see it now as an impulsive voice that I can be aware of, but who isn’t me.

Karen J March 12, 2014 at 1:07 am

That’s brilliant, Joy – “like a back seat driver”! Exactly, and for all the reasons you gave. :) Thank you!

Gypsian March 10, 2014 at 5:29 am

Hi David,
This is a wonderful, freshly brewed take on what I have been going round in circles learning and then forgetting most of my life!
The books you mentined are great too. I also found the book – Stop Thinking Start Living by Richard Carlson very good, although its strangely repetitive, its great to dip in and out of.
Also, I must say your book – This Will Never Happen Again is clear and crisp as a bell, one I always recommend.
Cheers.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:29 am

Thanks Gypsian. When I was writing this I also thought of The Four Agreements, the first of which is “Be impeccable with your word,” which implies that you should have intention behind your words when you do use them.

Jennifer March 10, 2014 at 5:41 am

Great article. This one really applies to me and I’m going to be more mindful of this. Sometimes I arrive to work after my 15 minute commute and realize I don’t even remember the drive in. It’s so programmed into my brain that I completely zone out. Also, when I’m reading a novel, sometimes I’ll realize I’ve just read 2 pages, but have no idea what I read because my mind was thinking about something else. The tips you’ve provided will really be beneficial.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:30 am

That happens to me too. The 15 minute commute sounds like a good length for a practice.

Lee March 10, 2014 at 6:01 am

Hi David,
So glad I found you … after reading a guest post at LifeHack … and now this very timely first post received.
Insightful and articulate … you write as an experienced meditator which you maybe or maybe you’re a natural. I have been meditating off and on since 2000 and I practice a secular meditation path called The Way of Shambhala that uses breath as its focal point. This was after reading “Shambhala: The Path of the Warrior” by Chogyam Trungpa … who had me curious with the title and engaged with the thought “Don’t trust me, trust yourself.” as well as the idea of building an Enlightened Society.
The whole point of meditation is as you write about … calming the mind, not believing/solidifying everything you think, so to allow a direct experience of reality through body mind synchronicity … and your point connecting this to risky behavior … brilliant. The mind is built to wander and the body flow … as it processes the environment around it … so it’s no coincidence that they call meditation a practice, especially in the beginning on this life long journey from anxious participant to calm observer, back and forth, back and forth.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:32 am

Glad you found me too, Lee. The breath is probably the perfect object of meditation because you take it with you wherever you go.

Lee March 10, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Exactly! Your breath is free for the asking and if you can’t find it, it doesn’t matter … ;)

Chris @ Flipping A Dollar March 10, 2014 at 6:50 am

Yikes, I have a ways to go. First I have to detach myself from the internet (Reddit, FB, cell phone), and that alone seems like an arduous task. I did do a month where I didn’t have anything on in the car, no music, audiobook, etc. This really let me decompress, but I still found I wasn’t being mindful throughout the drive. I guess I’m having trouble trying to get the thoughts out of my head when really, they’ll go away if I focus on something physical.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:34 am

Yeah, don’t worry about pushing them out of your head. There is an unlimited supply of them. It’s only a matter of returning your attention to the present when you notice you’re talking internally. I find the feel of my clothes or the background noise of wherever I am is a great place to re-enter the present.

Jonny Hung March 10, 2014 at 7:01 am

David,

Beautiful post on a topic close to my heart.
I especially liked: “The thinking mind is like a perpetually-running chainsaw that thinks everything is a tree.”

Shameless but highly relevant plug:
Today, I posted a waiting/hibernating piece on a similar subject: Anxiety.
These are thoughts from my toughest time on this turning sphere. And I truly hope it can help anyone who’s struggling with struggle.
Read it here: http://www.jonnyhung.com/blog/anxiety-sobriety

Just learned that there was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of northern-northern California (my home state) earlier today. I hope that everyone’s friends and family are safe and well.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:39 am

This kind of mindfulness is really helpful for anxiety. To actually stop and look at present-moment feelings of anxiety or fear is really enlightening. It allows you to sit with it, which makes you realize it’s perfectly okay to feel any particular way, and it also reveals what it does to your body — where tension is building up, whether you’re fidgeting, etc.

Jacquelyn Maynard March 10, 2014 at 7:09 am

Power of Now has been almost like a bible for me in the past months. That is, I pick it up as much as I can, just to read a page or so, just as a reminder that that’s what I’m striving for. It’s incredible how quickly one can forget to practice these simple experiments as you’ve described them. Another great post.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:40 am

Yes, it’s something to come back to. The first read can be confusing, but as you practice mindfulness, certain passages take on new meaning.

Dzmitry March 10, 2014 at 7:18 am

So I think the mindfulness of non-thinking is tightly related to meditation. I picked that habit up few years back and even though I don’t practice it every day, I am still mindful from time to time, from activity to activity. For example, I rarely listen to music in the car, mostly audiobooks. But I often even turn that off to just stay present, take the whole situation in. Walking also does that for me, but I have to be more intentional with that, I have to choose to stay present.
Practice definitely helps out with staying present. It’s almost like you’re flowing through the time/space and taking it all in, judgement free as you mentioned.

When we give our brain a break, it works much better during the times a problem does need solving. As with everything valuable, of course, this conscious act is hard, otherwise everyone would be doing it :)

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:43 am

It is a kind of meditation, if we define meditation as the practice of directing your attention on purpose. This casual mindfulness is really helpful, but it sure gets a boost from regular sitting meditation. The main skill is just noticing the attention has wandered and putting it back, and dedicated meditation practice is the best way to improve it.

Krasnova March 10, 2014 at 7:45 am

I usually achieve this during Flow State in my art, or yes, through deliberate physical effort that demands full awareness and focus. I used to be a dancer. I notice when I stopped to focus on more introverted pursuits, I lost with it a sort of natural earthly awareness. I have since learned I’m an Introverted Intuitive (INFJ), a Jungian/MBTI type known for its strong mind, but lack of physical awareness (they are often described as ethereal). Under this lens, I wonder if Sensors have an easier time practicing mindfulness, and it’s more of a noble struggle for Intuitives. At the same time, I wonder if putting a label on it at all just gives you one reason to have an external locus of control, and to not attempt to make a change.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:44 am

I am an INTJ, and I’m not sure if the N part makes it harder or easier for me, because I’ve only ever been me :)

Linda Lesperance March 10, 2014 at 8:28 am

David…words are an occupational hazard for you and others who see the world through the lens of writing so don’t beat yourself up over it. You wouldn’t be where you are today without words. You are now making a living due to words. As a painter, I can’t help seeing the world as color and composition. LOL Maybe we are meant to struggle between the theoretical world and the physical world. Did you ever think why we can’t remember all the way back to infancy? It’s because we didn’t know words yet. We only start to remember our childhood from the point of learning vocabulary to describe it. I believe that there is room in our lives for both…a time to immerse ourselves in the present and a time to reflect on what it was and how it can affect our “being”.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:48 am

I’m definitely not vilifying words here. I love words. But I would like my words to have a purpose when I use them.

There is an interesting relationship between words and memory. Words certainly help is divide and conceptualize reality, but this is intrinsically problematic, because we create divisions in the concept where there are none in the reality the concept is describing. This is why spiritual teachings are so hard to talk about, because we have to reach an understanding of them beyond words, yet how do you teach something without words? There’s a reason religion is full of parables and metaphors.

Duska Woods March 10, 2014 at 8:50 am

Hi David and thank you, very important topic indeed. Most of us have the books you have mentioned and we still get caught up in the so called ‘monkey mind’ all the time. Mind is very deceiving and tricky, if one does not consciously try to still it. When I am caught in the incessant mind chatter that I find so exhaustion I silently say to myself ‘here and now’ few times, and it works. But mind is tricky and will soon try to take over again if we let it so one needs to practice until it becomes easier and easier to still the self talk.. Once one starts to experience still mind it feels like one has gained freedoms from oppression. Thank you for your personal insight and advice on how to handle this strange human habit…It would be interesting to find out why and how the mind became what it is and why the incessant self talk…there has to be some evolutionary reason for it?

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:51 am

Hi Duska. I wonder about the evolutionary influences behind it. One thing is for sure though: however bad it was, it’s made worse by modern technology. We are inundated with verbal media of all kinds, all day. Little thought seeds landing in your garden by the thousand.

Duska Woods March 12, 2014 at 9:17 am

Hi David, I agree that modern technology has made things worse. I look at young kids today and their attention in on the screen all the time and few want to have conversation with people around them. It remains to be seen if we’ll reach a point where we’ll have to learn better how and when to use our new and sedative technology. I cannot tell enough you how much I enjoy reading your blogs. I am a product of the baby boom and that whole generation that got interested in Eastern philosophy, Buddhism, meditation etc., and to see someone like you being so in tune what the culture needs to better itself is a pure joy. Some of your blogs I particularly love like.. Of Course Universe Conscious, Who You Really Are, Our Lives Are Not What You Think and that is because I am very interested in the transcendent nature of so called reality. Thank you again, keep up a good work, we love your blogs, you are right on the cultural pulse..best wishes to you.

David Cain March 14, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Thanks Duska. Thoes are some of my favorite posts too.

I wonder if the increasingly obvious problem with smart phones and attention spans will eventually have a positive effect. It may become so ridiculous that society begins to recognize the critical importance of learning about our own attention, and how to use it effectively. It’s amazing how useful this kind of work is and how so few people talk about it.

Michael Eisbrener March 10, 2014 at 8:58 am

David,
Thank you for the post. Stopping any kind of automatic habitual routine seems to knock me into now. Last week I spend three days fasting and in the middle two days of no talking, no TV, no emails, no internet…. I focused on ‘out-here’ instead of the monologue in-here. As has happened before that when I ‘returned’ many things I have never seen before that was always there suddenly appear shocking and crystal clear. Being here now is where everything gets done!

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:52 am

Hi Michael. Routine-breaking is a great idea. Anything new requires more attention.

John March 10, 2014 at 9:01 am

Excellent job on adding clarity to a somewhat difficult topic. I’ve also been appreciating doing the dishes and observing the physical qualities of a dish when holding and scrubbing. It’s a small way to realize I’m knocking out an item on my to-do list and the rewards of completing the task make me inspired to complete more small tasks throughout the day.

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:53 am

Hi John. After all these years, this dish exercise taught me that doing the dishes is actually pretty enjoyable, yet the idea of doing the dishes remains annoying.

Insourcelife March 10, 2014 at 9:17 am

Your point a) is one of the reasons I like to ride my motorcycle. It’s one of the few activities where my mind is focused on what I’m doing and thoughts about other things recede in the background until I’m done. Driving a car is so easy and comfortable that I find myself getting lost in my thoughts all the time, not even noticing the ridiculous speeds at which I’m travelling. This never happens on a bike. The ground is right THERE, the wind is loud and pushing against your chest, the smells are intense…

David Cain March 10, 2014 at 9:55 am

Sounds great. I don’t drive a motorcycle but I notice a huge difference between driving with the music on, and driving with the windows open and no music. I need to do that more often.

Hope March 10, 2014 at 11:17 am

Doing mindful exercises has greatly reduced my anxiety. I get to wrestle with my patience and tell myself, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” When I practice things like turning the knob down on the chatter, a feel a spark of connection, and tension has slightly dissolved. That connection seems like an important start to something powerful. Its been opening doors for me.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:19 am

Yes, this can be very helpful for anxiety. Trains of thought can continue forever if they’re allowed to, and in my experience they often end up on anxious thoughts. You start to think about something you don’t want, or don’t want to happen, and it’s hard to leave it alone because you feel like it needs attention or it will surprise you later. But most of this kind of thought doesn’t actually lead to solutions, it just makes you feel tight and anxious. The thinking mind has a snowball effect, and it’s good to be aware of that.

Steve Mays March 10, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Easily the most important (and useful) thing I’ve read in… months? Thank you. I’ll come back to this again and again. And again.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:20 am

That’s great. I’ll be coming back to this topic a lot, because it has many, many specific applications in life.

Greg Blome March 10, 2014 at 12:49 pm

I just started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and I had a big take-away that hits on this issue. David, you speak of focusing on doing your dishes. I am on a similar path with what I’m calling the color game. It is based on a study in the book where they asked someone to walk down the street and only look for the color red. This focuses your complete attention on finding that color in whatever you can – a restaurant sign, a stop light, etc. Whenever I consciously catch myself in my head, I will tell myself to look for black as an example. This has already helped me get out of my head and back to reality. There are many ways you can go with this, but this is one way I am experimenting with.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:21 am

Ah I love that exercise. I want to try it.

I think I will have to read that book. A lot of people have recommended it.

Levi Mitze March 10, 2014 at 12:53 pm

As usual, awesome. Great piece, David. Thank you!

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:23 am

Thanks Levi

Bodie March 10, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Thank you David! Your words continue to inspire me.
Once a friend of mine asked a teacher, “I get brief moments of bliss/peace, but then they go away. How can I experience that peace all the time?”
The teacher’s response: “Make the spaces between those moments of peace smaller and smaller until they disappear.”

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:25 am

Right. That’s kind of the theme behind the post. The more you practice, the more you’re inclined to practice. So there is a critical point you can reach where your practice is regular enough that you are inclined to practice almost all the time.

Kenoryn March 10, 2014 at 2:57 pm

I can see the value in avoiding stressful thoughts, fretting over something etc., but I’m not sure I see the need to be ‘in the moment’ while doing something like dishes. I don’t enjoy doing dishes, particularly, but I do enjoy having my mind free to just think while I’m doing a task that my brain isn’t needed for. I get a lot of joy from daydreaming, thinking about the lifestyle I want to lead in the future, or thinking about where to put the parsnips in the garden this year, or thinking about what I want to get done with the rest of my day or how I could improve my muffin recipe or an idea for an article I want to write or working through an email I want to send or how I’ll put together that exhibit I’m planning. If you don’t think about those things while you’re doing dishes (etc.), when do you think about them? I don’t have enough time in my day to devote time specifically to just sitting and thinking and separate, additional time to doing the dishes, when I could combine the two. :) Thinking time is problem-solving time, decision-making time, pondering and understanding time.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:30 am

I am a proponent of positive visualization, and if that’s what most of your daily thinking is about, then wonderful. What I’m talking about here is getting out of the habit of purposeless compulsive thinking. Most thinking, for most people, does not accomplish anything except creating anxiety and distracting one from one’s surroundings.

If you can keep your thoughts organized and purposeful, then go with it. Most people will probably become anxious if they’re thinking of emails and project planning while they’re doing dishes.

I have noticed that many activities which I resist (like the dishes) are actually perfectly enjoyable if I just open up to them and pay attention to them, rather than try to think over them.

Melanie March 10, 2014 at 4:48 pm

I loved this article, David and you write beautifully. However, I am a bit confused. I am a meditator and I have practiced (briefly and randomly) mindfulness. Can you explain what you mean when you say that you decided to keep from talking in your head for your drive? I get the idea of focusing your attention on what you are doing, but the mind is still telling us what to do and therefore ‘talking’. From my experience my mind rarely shuts up, even whilst meditating and the purpose of meditation is not to stop the thoughts but to let them walk on by. Is this what you mean, that you don’t engage with your thoughts? The mind is a thinking machine. It does what it does, but we don’t need to take it so seriously and we can practice which thoughts to listen to and which not to. Is this what you do when you wash the dishes? Would love to hear your thoughts.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:39 am

By “talking” I mean inner dialogues or monologues. You are right, the mind is constantly generating thoughts, and what I’m talking about here is how to respond to them. During my drive, whenever an inner dialogue began, I just noted it and reminded myself of my intention to stay with the physical. So I returned my attention to the feel of the seat or the traffic noise. After not too long the dialogues stopping being so persistent. I would still feel non-verbal impulses, like the one to open the car door, but these were not distracting and didn’t take more of my attention than they needed. These kinds of intentions seem to arise on a non-verbal level and they don’t lead to “trains of thought” like mental dialogue does.

Does that clarify things? I don’t mean I stopped thinking entirely, but I did stop talking in my head, and declined all “invitations” by my mind to continue.

Andrew March 10, 2014 at 6:37 pm

This is quite similar to some of the Buddhist meditation practices. I would classify it as a calm abiding type meditation. I can’t really add much to what you said here myself, because I mostly agree. The few points I want to add are more wrong conclusions people can reach from what you said, because it is a different way of thinking.

For example, there could be a temptation to try and repress thoughts or feelings to establish mental silence. That isn’t healthy; you never want to repress thoughts or feelings because they come back stronger (learned from hard experience, haha.) Also, the chatter you hear isn’t bad. It isn’t good. It’s just the function of the mind, just like emotions. I think, especially for people who are new to meditation, the focus should be on just being aware of thoughts as they come, and seeing them for what they are: immaterial and impermanent.

I know that you aren’t saying that thinking is bad. That is an attitude that seems to come up in spiritual circles: that the goal of meditating is to blank out. That isn’t really it. It’s just to be mindful of things as they are. That includes internal states. Directed thinking can be good for that. This is a more analytical type of meditation, where you work out in your mind things like, for example, the Buddhist concept (for lack of a better term) of emptiness. Or you can direct your thinking to look deeply at well entrenched thought habits, and using probing questions bring those beliefs to the conscious awareness.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:49 am

Thanks Andrew, that is an important clarification. This is a very gentle curation of the mind’s attention. The mind invites you to engage with a dialogue about how bad SUVs are and what kind of person would drive one, and you become aware of this thought, recognize it as a potentially endless mental dialogue with no purpose, and you decide to leave it and return your attention to something other than a thought — the weight of your clothes on you or the feel of the air.

It’s all about learning how to stay aware of places your attention can get stuck on, and learning to put it somewhere on purpose.

Jonathan March 10, 2014 at 10:22 pm

I found the audio version of the power of now in my library. I ended up listening to it three times in a row on my commutes to work before I had to return it. It really did change my awareness to everything. Occasionally, I have to remind myself the ego is taking over. But I am actually a better person since experiencing this book.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:51 am

I have been listening to it every few years for about ten years now. Each time I take different things from it, because I’m different. I would like to go through A New Earth again too.

Adam March 10, 2014 at 11:44 pm

Focusing on external physical objects can be a great way to help break the addiction to internal dialogue. Focusing on the internal dialogue itself can work as well. Are you familiar with Shinzen Young? In his system he divides experience into six categories: internal auditory, visual, and somatic and external auditory, visual, and somatic. Focusing on any of these or any combination can be effective mindfulness training.

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:54 am

Yes, you can use thoughts as an object of mindfulness too, but this is distinctly more difficult, because they are so fluid. For people new to mindfulness I would recommend using physical aspects of experience.

Pragti March 11, 2014 at 4:12 am

Hey !
Just lovely. Yes..when we go for a walk.. the simple act of looking at a tree can give such frissions of joy and u wil wonder and marvel at the beauty all around. This does happen when u are IN THE MOMENT.
Yes, so many mundane activities of life can be so beautiful and joyful.. It might be as ordinary as just a drive up the petrol bunk to get the fuel filled.

Thank you for putting things across in such a simple and lovely way.

Regards

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:55 am

This is probably the best indicator that you have become mindful — if you can perceive that beauty. Often we are still viewing the outside world in terms of our thoughts about it, and its normal beauty doesn’t make it through.

Charles Reinholz March 11, 2014 at 7:38 am

thank you…

David Cain March 11, 2014 at 8:56 am

Thank you for coming!

Free to Pursue March 11, 2014 at 9:59 am

I enjoyed this post. The ROI of working to stay in the moment is significant.

I find it is difficult to focus on the present when I have something on my mind. The book “Getting Things Done” suggests that the mind only has so much RAM and if you are trying to remember a number of things you need to do, it perpetually keeps you in the future and not in the now.

A huge help for me was to write things down or schedule something as soon as I think of it so that I could allow myself to stop thinking of it and start paying attention to the present on a more consistent basis. I no longer have a constant mental “to do” list on constant playback.

As a result of this small change in my habits, I am more present on a day-to-day basis and my memories of various enjoyable activities are more vivid because I am more observant now that I am less preoccupied. I have finally managed to give myself more mental room to take it all in. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s good enough to make me strive to maintain it.

David Cain March 13, 2014 at 10:43 am

That’s what GTD is all about, essentially: putting your work back into the real world instead of in your head.

kabamba March 11, 2014 at 3:15 pm

It also helps to elect a specific chore that you will use to remind you to get present in that moment. Like when you touch the door handle Forexample. Or when you place your bare feet on the floor when you work up in the morning. :-)

David Cain March 13, 2014 at 10:45 am

I’ve talked about the opening doors as a good anchor point. Feet on the floor is another good one. There are so many. Putting on clothes, using light switches, answering the phone. Getting in my car was another, but I don’t do that as much any more.

Kenneth March 11, 2014 at 3:41 pm

I’ve tried this several times this afternoon. It is VERY relaxing for me to just quiet my mind. I nodded off a couple of times. But I feel more relaxed, and it’s a good feeling. My mind must prattle on a million miles an hour unchecked.

As an aside, I can fall asleep within 2 minutes of my head hitting the pillow at night. Dear wife cannot do this, and sometimes lays there for hours, “worrying”. It seems this is a not uncommon difference between men and women. I wonder what DW can do to quiet her mind, quit “thinking”, and fall asleep quicker?

Genevieve Hawkins March 12, 2014 at 7:50 am

“The thinking mind is like a perpetually-running chainsaw that thinks everything is a tree. It will use any excuse to rev up and start shredding something. Its purpose is to solve problems, so it wants everything to be a problem.”
Beautiful. So many of our “problems” are not problems at all, except in the creation of the mind….where everything needs to be a problem!

Terri Lynn March 12, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I notice that when I tell my mind to do something, it usually resists. I’ve learned that asking an open ended question is a great way to set up the experience that I am desiring. The mind can’t answer and gives up. If I were aware of the stillness and beauty in my life, what would I be noticing today?

Joseph Townend March 12, 2014 at 3:27 pm

I do believe that we all have the power within is to be mndful and to be able to make positve changes in our lives. Some days can seem not too great and the focus needs to be on the things that you love in your life and what makes life special for you.

Dan March 12, 2014 at 10:22 pm

“And what is required, is that we shut up. That is to say we become interiorly silent and seize the interminable chatter that goes on inside our skulls. Because, you see, most of us think compulsively all the time. That is to say we talk to ourselves. If I talk all the time, I don’t hear what anyone else have to say. And in exactly the same way if i think all the time, that is to say if talk to myself all the time I don’t have anything to think about accept thoughts and therefore I live entirely in the world of symbols and I am not in relationship with reality.” – Alan Watts

Along with Eckhart Tolle, I would strongly recommend checking out Alan Watts. Your example of attending to each dish is one of the precise examples he gives in this video:

Work as Play
http://youtu.be/YiEzxNqw6_0

Again, can’t emphasize how much his work (play?) is worth exploring. Here are a few more clips playing off the same theme:

The Real Secret of Life
http://youtu.be/Z5uPPVLmElA

It Starts Now
http://youtu.be/PfIYGaslVnA

The Secret of Life
http://youtu.be/iZ8so-ld-l0

“The art of meditation is a way of getting into touch with reality, and the reason for it is that most civilized people are out of touch with reality because they confuse the world as it with the world as they think about it and talk about it and describe it. For on the one hand there is the real world and on the other there is a whole system of symbols about that world which we have in our minds. These are very very useful symbols, all civilization depends on them, but like all good things they have their disadvantages, and the principle disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality.” – Watts

And here is a full lecture from which that quote comes from:

Teaches the Art of Meditation
http://youtu.be/kVrnTNpVe5I

David Cain March 14, 2014 at 9:40 am

Alan Watts is great. I’ll check these out.

Dan March 14, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Thanks for the response, David! The first in the set of short clips (“The Real Secret of Life”) clocks in at a brisk two minutes and sums it up in a nutshell. Would have left it at that, but wanted to provide additional material where he fleshes the theme out further in case you were interested.

Dan March 14, 2014 at 6:53 pm

“The only place for you to be, the only place for you to live, is here, right now.” – Watts

Michael (MJL Plants) March 13, 2014 at 7:11 am

As I’m reading this I’m sitting in the sun and observing the plants and animals in the garden. I will definitely take something from this post. Thank you for a great read.

George March 13, 2014 at 8:37 am

Have you tried using the Douglas Harding thing for this? I remember reading a recommendation from him: to use seeing other people’s faces as a reminder to notice yourself as “face to no-face” – i.e. as present moment awareness, open for experience.

I’d forgotten about it until I read your post. There’s plenty of faces knocking around the place on my daily travels to act as reminders. (Or maybe you could trigger yourself to check yourself whenever you see your own hands – like people who are trying to lucid dream regularly do.)

David Cain March 13, 2014 at 10:46 am

Yes I have, and I tend to remember it when I speaking one-on-one with someone, as you say. Face to no-face.

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