A Friend posted this on FaceBook:
Someone commented, “I don’t know how to stop thinking. Not until I lay down at night. Brain is always busy with something. Wish I could turn it off.”
Here I will seek to meet that person’s need.
The suggestions I offer are merely off the top of my head. I have done no research. I speak from my own experience. And I’m afraid that, at times, I may ramble.
The goal here is not to eliminate thinking entirely. One does face cognitive tasks in life; one needs to make plans, even if it’s only a grocery list; one needs to make decisions, even if it’s only between two sizes of the same product in the supermarket. The goal instead is to obtain times of mental silence at will.
As a child, I taught myself to think excessively. I was unusually bright compared to the people around me, and I got the notion that if I only thought long enough, I could solve any problem whatsoever. On the one hand, even as an adult, it has taken me decades to unlearn the assumption that it’s up to me to solve all the world’s problems. On the other hand, there are other kinds of problems that thinking can’t do anything about.
Examples of problems of brawn: (1) If a building needs to be built, someone needs to do the actual work of physically building it. My thinking about it won’t get it done. (2) In recent weeks, given the “rucks” taking place in honor of service members recently lost in Kabul, I’ve given more thought than ever before to the sheer physical strength required of women and men in the infantry. If a platoon needs to move from Point A to Point B in a place without any roads, they are likely to have to walk twenty miles, each one carrying a pack that may weigh eighty pounds. It’s sheer grunt work, indeed; no thought is involved.
An example of a problem of affect (emotions or feelings): Social conservatives are fundamentally insecure. They cling to their guns, for reason that they perceive threats that you and I don’t. It is a purely emotional issue; no amount of logic or reason or thinking or speech will resolve it. They may be able to grow out of it, with enough of the right wrestling with their own feelings; but it’s their own feelings, not anyone’s thoughts, they must wrestle with.
So, here are three realms where one’s attention can be directed: the mind, the realm of cognition and thinking; the physical body, one’s flesh; and the soul or affect, the “body” of one’s emotions. The three realms affect one another.
One’s attention does not need to be in the mind all the time.
M.H. indicated that she’s tried meditation, and apparently it did not achieve the desired result. I’m not going to interrogate her about that. Meditation as I practice and teach it is described in The Way of Peace. Meditation may not obtain the desired effect unless one also engages in mindfulness or presence. Those are also described in that same book, and I will discuss them some here.
Mindfulness is a matter of keeping one’s attention, as far as possible, in the current, concrete here-and-now. One uses the same discipline as during meditation: when a distracting thought or feeling comes, don’t grab hold of it; don’t pursue it; don’t fight it; but instead just let it go, let it leave. And bring one’s attention back to the here-and-now.
A bit more: One can begin establishing periods of mental silence, by beginning with moments. Sure it is, that anyone, from time to time, will have a moment of silence. Seek to let that last as long as you can. In this time, merely observe the world around you, accepting what you see, hear and feel, without judgment, without notions of right and wrong or good or bad or pleasant or unpleasant. I will say more about this practice below.
There is a foreground and background to one’s attention. The foreground is what you’re actually attending to; the background is everything else you perceive. One question is what, from moment to moment, you’re choosing as foreground or background.
At the shelter where I used to say — I was there for more than nine years. — we were compelled to sit for about six hours every day in this “day room,” with 60 chairs and a 60″ flat-screen TV. Given that the homeless tend to be “oral,” the noise level typically got pretty high. One normally could not hear the TV.
Background and foreground: if one wants to hear the TV, one has to “turn up the volume” on it, in one’s choices of what to make foreground and background.
I’ve been practicing meditation since 1983. Originally it was once a day for 22 minutes. Ten or fifteen years ago, I changed it to twice a day, 22 minutes each time; as I’ve been told that 40 minutes per day is ideal. I wound up doing my afternoon meditations, or “silences” as I call them, in that day room. I accomplished my silence by imagining silence, and then listening to that; if the noise around me got too much, I’d simply “turn up the volume” on the silence until the background noise no longer mattered.
If one is engaged in some mindless activity — such as a “ruck” — one can obtain mental silence, and this would be mindfulness, by letting oneself become completely absorbed in that activity. Now, attention appears to have bandwidth; there are limits to how much one can pay attention to at one time. I recall that in high school, my running workouts were so boring, I decided one time to try to do my Algebra homework while running. This did not work out well; the energy required for the mental task really took away the energy I needed to run.
So with my current walking workouts: at age 65, for the sake of my health, in months past I was walking 20 minutes per day, three days a week. I have recently chosen to up that to every day. But when I am there, or walking anywhere, my mind is now silent. I observe the scenery (without judging or commenting, as mentioned before), but otherwise my attention is wholly in the flesh, not mind; my awareness is full of the physical sensations of walking. There is practically no thought.
OK, I’m almost done.
Two points left: dealing with untoward affect; and using idle time.
Just as one’s thoughts may wander throughout the day, one’s affect also wanders throughout the day (Related: The wandering will.), and sometimes it wanders into places that aren’t so good. One’s affect filters one’s thinking. (Related: Rationalism cannot save us.) I find that an untoward affect almost always pulls my attention away from the here-and-now. Just bringing my attention back to the present is, most of the time, enough in itself to make the bad feelings go away.
Idle time, such as waiting in line at the supermarket or sitting outside on a smoke break, isn’t necessarily time to let my thoughts run wild. There are things I can do to maintain presence or silence in these times, too. On a smoke break, I may “ground” myself by observing the things around me — the stop sign, the light pole, the trash can — and imagining myself going around actually touching those things, imagining how they feel. I will pray for each passerby — This works in the supermarket checkout line, too. — by visualizing the person as surrounded by a cloud of white light, and sending him or her goodwill, and perhaps saying silently, “God bless you.”
Finally, I really, really do let go of all those things I can do nothing about — such as the stupid laws that have recently been passed in Texas and Florida, or the current turmoil in many states over CRT. They’re not Maryland; they’re not Baltimore; they’re not the people I meet in real life day to day. My first concern is what I do where I am, and with the people who are with me in this place.
I welcome your comments!