Mind Ruts

“Suffering itself does less afflict the senses than the anticipation of suffering.”

By the time we are adults, we can be very good at suffering. We have figured out where the dangers are, and we anticipate them nicely. We collect our knowledge of danger in thought forms we call worry. We can run them often, so they don’t wear out, and so we won’t be left helpless and clueless in the face of danger. We imagine all sorts of catastrophes, and we stop doing anything that might cause more pain. Eventually, if we are really good at this self-protection, we don’t do anything. We can stay home with our thoughts and run them like a spinning wheel, round and round.

Our nervous systems learn the dangers too. If we’ve been hurt badly, we don’t even have to think about it to respond to danger. Any hint that we might be hurt or humiliated will rev up the fight or flight response and we are ready to run. Unfortunately, we aren’t ready to do much else. The highly activated state of fear/anger focuses energy on issues of safety, but takes away energy from any optional activities that might make life worth living.

Thoughts and feelings wear themselves into our nervous systems like a footpath through grass. The more often they are used, the deeper they become. If we are not conscious of our mental and emotional processes we can easily fall into ruts of our own making.

Meditation can be very difficult when we are chronically over activated in our brain. The thinking won’t stop, and the nervous meditator is inclined to think, “I can’t do this.” Physical therapists hear the same response from people who’ve been injured when they start their new exercise program. It seems too hard. If we are going to get better though, we need to start and persist.

Calming the mind is a skill. Like any skill is must be learned and practiced. Persistent practice builds skill. If you lost the ability to walk, you would probably be willing to do the physical therapy that would help you to walk again. If you are beset by unpleasant emotions the situation is the same. You can improve your emotional life by dedicated meditation. Yes it can be hard. Here are some suggestions for working through the strain.

If you are not an experienced meditator, or you are having trouble with your practice, get help. Find a qualified teacher or a group to sit with.

Breathe. The breath is the most basic and direct way to affect the nervous system. It can tell your brain to turn off the stress response and turn on the relaxation response. Breathe more deeply and more slowly. Emphasize exhaling rather than inhaling to avoid hyperventilating. Breathe slow, easy, unhurried.

Calm your body. Put your body in a position of power. Sit upright so that your lungs can expand and your spine is elongated. Remind yourself to relax. Scan your body for tension. Invite any specific parts of your body that are tense to relax. You may need to repeat the invitation.

Disengage from habitual thoughts. Thoughts that are repeated or matched with strong emotion become more deeply ingrained. Let them go. Let grass grow in those mental ruts. Create open mind---mind that is open, broad, spacious, well lit. When you catch a thought with a handle, let go of it. Keep letting go of it every time it comes back to you.

Your thought stream has limited bandwidth, so fill it up with something untroubling, such as a mantra, a chant, a prayer, or a visual image, such as a candle, a mandala, a statue or a sacred picture. When your mind drifts, bring it back to the object of your intentional attention.

Come back to your breath and your posture after you’ve lost track of them. Fill part of your mind with your attention to breath and posture.

When fear or any other unwanted emotional state comes, breathe through it. Resistance to the fear gives it power. Breathe, relax, endure, release. Breathe more.

Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect instant results. Don’t berate yourself for not being a better meditator.

Let go of your expectation of results and just do the practice.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett