Switching off your mind

Horse Rider

A lot of people say to me that they can’t meditate because they can’t switch off their mind. Well, funnily enough, neither can I! Fortunately, mindfulness meditation, as I know it, does not require you to do that. If you do try to stop thoughts coming, it often creates more tension.

It’s surely clear to anyone who’s lain awake for hours fretting, that trying not to think about something doesn’t work very well. We say to ourselves “I don’t want to think about this now! I’m going to be knackered tomorrow if I don’t stop thinking and go to sleep!” Then we start fretting about the fact that we’re fretting about it, and we wonder how we got to sleep on any other night of our lives.

Before I started meditating, I thought I was in control of my own mind. I’m not. No one is. Your mind has a mind of its own. I’ve got some control. I can decide, right now, to start thinking about bananas. As soon as I started thinking of bananas, however, a gorilla popped up. I didn’t consciously decide to think of gorillas, my mind has obviously created a strong association between the two. Then my attention flitted to an itch on my right cheek. Then back to the bananas and the gorilla. Then I thought that about what I’m going to say about these thoughts. The whole time, it was my intention to only think about bananas. I wasn’t able to take full control for even a few seconds.

There’s an old chinese story about a man riding along on a horse. He’s asked “Where are you going?” And he replies “I don’t know, the horse is in charge.” In this story, the horse represents the man’s thoughts and emotions. It can often feel like we’re being carried along by them with only a limited ability to take the reigns. Mindfulness helps you take more control of the horse. Not full control, all the time, but gradually more and more.

The more I’ve started to consciously take control, the more in control I’ve become. It’s easier to notice when you’ve lost the reins when you’re sitting still with your eyes closed. That’s one of the main reasons people meditate that way. You can do it any time though, which is what I try to do. I make a conscious decision about what I want to pay attention to: my breath, the tomato I’m chopping, the email I’m sending, and each time I notice my attention has wandered off I patiently bring it back again.

I’m not stopping thoughts from happening, I’m just redirecting my attention once I notice them. Try to try to treat it like training puppy: be gentle, playful and don’t expect immediate results.

Over time, your thoughts become less like the traffic on the M25 and more like a Cornish B road.

I find this also helps me to fall asleep: If my thoughts start picking up speed, I keep bringing my attention back to counting my breath. Finding it unstimulating, my mind usually very quickly powers down and then switches off for the night.

So in conclusion, you can’t turn your mind on and off, but you can repeatedly guide it to where you want it to be where and how you want it to be, and over time it will have more control of the reins.

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