Tame the Mind

“Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The human mind has a tendency to be swayed away effortlessly from this moment to the world of random thoughts. The mind can become a dangerous master if it takes control of us. Stress, anxiety and depression are becoming common in today’s hectic life and most of these problems have their origin in our mind as  it has the capacity of imagination. Can we try to take control of this mind? Yes, we can practice mindfulness.

‘Mindfulness’ finds its origin in the Eastern world. It has been a principal practice in Buddhist tradition for last 200 years to lead a path to overcome suffering. In the last couple of decades, this practice has found its place in the West as a part of psychological approach among mental health practitioners.

The major reason for greater adoption of this practice is the proven benefits from scientific research. Mindfulness can lead to greater awareness of thoughts running in one’s mind, reduced worry and anxiety, improved response to stress rather than emotional reactions, enhanced concentration, reduction of mental-health risks, improved pain management, and better mood regulation.

Mindfulness is the awareness of ‘now’ without any judgement of the experience. In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn described the essence of mindfulness as ‘a way of bringing conscious awareness and attention to the present moment, with an attitude of openness and curiosity’. It is the state of observing the sensations without any judgement or identification with them, anxiety is the struggle in mind and body between the reality and expectation. Mindfulness practice aims at acceptance of ‘what is’ and let it be rather than struggle to change it and cause inner turmoil.

Why do we need mindfulness? The book Brain Rules based on scientific research by Dr. John Medina suggests that multitasking is a myth and that our brain cannot focus on more than one activity at a time.  Therefore, it is better to improve upon our ability to concentrate. We have a tendency to get lost in random thoughts in an automated manner.  Mindfulness allows us to improve our capacity to be alert to the present moment and lead to relaxation. After all,  if you are always rushing to the next moment, what will happen to the present and who will live in the ‘now’? With mindfulness, we gain the ability to settle the murkiness of random thoughts and reach a calm, clear state of mind.

How does one practice mindfulness? Mindfulness can be practised as meditation or in daily-life tasks. Meditation can be in two forms – i) concentration meditation by focusing on specific objects or sensations, and ii) insight meditation involving observation of one’s own thoughts and emotional state. In daily life, mindfulness can be practised by paying attention and being alert to daily activities as waking up, brushing, washing, drinking, eating, and walking etc. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in”.

Simple mindfulness exercises – As mindfulness can be practised with simple activities, here are the few basic exercises to start with:

Walking and counting your steps – Try this every time you walk so that you are alert about your steps.

Focusing on breathing – Our mind is a wanderer and it is hard to control it. Our breath can be used as an anchor to the mind. Try focusing your attention to your breath and whenever your mind is getting lost in thoughts, bring it back to your breath.

Sitting and observing thoughts – Close your eyes and try to observe your thoughts. Look at them as clouds without any judgment or over-identifying with them. This brings awareness that ‘thoughts are just thoughts’.

Observing emotions – You can observe your emotions as negative and positive, pleasant or unpleasant. Just watch them without resisting them. This helps to get over your emotions without over-reacting.

Sitting/walking with a background sound – Try to listen to a soothing music and focus your attention to it.

Mindfulness with body sensation – Notice the touch of an object to any body part, pay attention to the sounds around you or the music you are listening, observe the taste of food in your mouth with every bite. More awareness means more peace and joy.

Our thought process is regulated through:

Sustained attention by focusing on an object as breath or sound.

Attention switching by noticing our thoughts and bringing them back to the object of focus whenever it has drifted away.

Inhibition of elaborative thinking by observing thoughts and dropping the chain of randomness. The moment you realize that a chain of thought is creating a trap, drop the thought.

This mindful regulation eventually leads to relaxation of the mind.

“When we stop trying to force pleasant feelings, they are freer to emerge on their own. When we stop trying to resist unpleasant feelings, we may find that they drift away by themselves”

Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn – The Mindful Way through Depression.

The ANU Counselling Centre runs a program – ‘Everyday Mindfulness’ which helps people better understand the practice and importance of mindfulness. Reading Sarah Edelman’s ‘Change Your Thinking’ provided me the motivation to write this piece. A workshop on mindfulness is being organised by ANU’s Department of Psychology and this gave me enough push to have the final shape of the article.