I have to come clean. Sometimes I find it almost impossible to still my mind.
I’m a meditation teacher, a therapist and a practitioner of more than 20 years standing. I should be able to still my mind. But sometimes I can’t.
And perhaps the one thing I have learned after all these years of meditation, is that it’s OK that I can’t.
The mind is naturally and instinctively tumultuous. It is a quirk of human brain architecture that we have a busy pre-frontal cortex (the rind of the brain) and a broody, impulsive limbic system (the core of the brain). Those two often tie each other in knots. And to a certain extent meditation is a mediation between those two warring neural tendencies.
If we don’t have a lived experience of stillness, then all we know is the endless cha-cha-cha of our thoughts
Nonetheless, it bruises my professional pride when I sit down and can’t keep my mind still for a minute. Because I would be kidding myself if I said that all the Buddhist and yogic masters of the past few millennia had just said: “Screw it, we just have to accept the inner turmoil and that’s it.”
That is not what they have said. We can be kind and compassionate to our inner battling for sure, but if we want to live a meaningful and exulted life, then we do have to grasp the nettle of stillness and movement. We do have to experience a still mind.
What does it mean to have a still mind? Does it mean a dead mind? A dead mind would certainly be still, but this is clearly not the goal of Buddhist practice. The Buddha wants us to inhabit enhanced and illuminated minds, full of life. He wants us to optimise the experience of having a human brain.
And to do that we need to have the ability to still the innate turbulence of the mind. Because if we don’t have a lived experience of stillness, then all we know is the endless cha-cha-cha of our thoughts.
The truth is: unchecked thinking makes us suffer.
At some point, we have to admit that it is our thoughts that drive our painful experiences in life.
Left to their own devices our emotions, our bodily sensations, and our sense experiences would all just rise and pass. They would all follow the law of coming-and-going that pervades the universe. But thinking (our seemingly unique and wonderful skill as humans) screws that up in a unique and wonderful way.
Thinking allows us to leave the law of coming-and-going and stay stuck in a long loop of emotion (“Why me? Why me? Why me?”) or lose ourselves in an ever-expanding web of memory or future planning. Within that sticky structure of thinking, emotions and bodily responses get stuck in toxic cycles, and sense experiences get squeezed and distorted.
This is hard to accept if you love the thinking mind (as I do). We might want to do some special pleading for thinking (“Well, the Dharma is thinking. We need to think to get to the cushion” etc). But the truth is unchecked thinking makes us suffer.
The mind (that continuous background experience of awareness that makes us alive) is the only arena for our lives. Without mind, there is no experience. And when the mind is all cluttered with thought then our experience is severely limited.
When the mind is relatively still and clear, something magical starts to shine through.
We only need to turn the light on in a darkened room for a second for everything to be changed completely.
I spent many decades thinking, when I should have been meditating. I don’t blame myself for that because it’s an almost ubiquitous human delusion. I know I’m not alone in that cul-de-sac. But wisdom teachers like Mingyur Rinpoche or his father Tulku Urgyen are relentless on this point. We only have to recognise the clear and unimpeded quality of the mind-free-from-thought for a few seconds to see through the decades of ‘pseudo-meditation’ that was actually just thinking. Just as we only need to turn the light on in a darkened room for a second for everything to be changed completely.
When we let the mind go still then something completely effortless and easy dawns. And, I discover, it is like the sun rising after a particularly dark and uneasy night. Once you see the sky in the East brighten, you can relax. The sun will come up no matter what happens in your mind. Dawn is on its way and nothing will stop it.
So the business of stilling the mind is important. And, yes, I am fully aware of the paradoxical nature of stilling the mind being a business.
On one level it’s an anti-business. Or anti-busy-ness. As Tulku Urgyen and all the great Dzogchen teachers love to say: Relax. Don’t do anything. Just let everything be. This is the essence of what the Tibetans call shinay practice. Just resting in the unadorned nature of the mind.
However, to sit down and tell yourself, “Now I am resting in the unadorned nature of my mind”, doesn’t often end well. Sometimes, we can have magical moments of grace. Especially when we are meditating with others. Especially when teachers are present who can access that big spacious mind.
Since I am not a natural yogi who falls into shinay with ease, I do like to give myself a head-start
But often what happens is a whole lot of thinking. And that thinking often begins with: “Well, I don’t know about the unadorned nature of my mind, but this feels a lot like the very heavily adorned nature of my normal neurotic mind. And it sucks”.
So, since I am not a natural yogi who falls into shinay with ease, I do like to give myself a head-start and utilise the practices and insights that millennia of yogis and meditators have taught us. These special forms of business paradoxically allow us to reach the state of “businesslessness”.
There are many ways to move the mind towards its inherent stillness. In some sense, all yoga, meditation, pranayama, exercise and therapy are paths to that state of wellbeing. But I like to focus on the ones that work for me: energy psychology and breathwork.
All meditation traditions have a form of practice called shamata or calm abiding. As the name suggests, this practice involves staying put in this present human body of yours (that’s the abiding part) and doing so in an increasingly soft, gentle and soothing way (that’s the calm part).
Of course, we can force ourselves to be still (but that isn’t calming) or we can float off into streams of dreamy thinking (that isn’t very abiding). The key to shamata is the enjoyment of staying put.
We can use mantras to do this, we can use the body in yoga. But I like to use the breath and I like to use energy psychology techniques (tapping etc) to put the body-mind into a natural calm and abiding state.
The recent insights into the nature and proclivities of the human autonomic nervous system (ANS) really help us get to this calm place.
When our nervous system is in a highly adrenalised and activated state then the mind will naturally be drenched in anxious thoughts. It's not in an activated nervous system’s nature to be calm and stay put. It is more inclined to panic and run around.
Likewise, when the ANS is in a frozen or collapsed state, then the mind tends towards deadness and negativity. It’s not likely to reach effortless brightness and vitality.
Stillness is the site of beauty and beauty is the inherent experience of the still mind.
So we work with what we’ve got and we use the insights of polyvagal theory to ensure the nervous system is in the right place for calm abiding to dawn spontaneously.
And then when those conditions have been put in place we can use the breath to further dismantle the mind's tendency to think. By immersing ourselves in the physical pleasure of the breath we can magnetise the experience of stillness. A silky-soft mind inclines naturally towards stillness. It wants to be still because stillness is the site of beauty and beauty is the inherent experience of the still mind.
So we use the beautiful qualities of the breath to seduce ourselves into stillness. And then we relax even more and wait for the sun to rise through the mists of the morning. And there we are. All soaked through with illumination like a sponge slowly soaking up water.
I'm running a whole weekend retreat exploring this stilling of the mind. We'll be looking at shamata and shinay practice and working together to find this innate and beautiful stillness.
Please take a look here and book a place. We'll be turning off phones and practising from Friday evening at 7 pm till Sunday tea-time at 4. (With some breaks for sleeping and eating of course!)
There are different prices for different means but if you would like to come but are stoney-broke just let me know.