What to Do When You Can't Still Your Mind

Kathy Kruger
What to Do When You Can't Still Your Mind

Congratulations -- you’re a human being (even when you’re a human doing too much) and it seems thinking is pretty much an integral part of being human. So why do you even think you can STOP thinking?

Forget for a moment what you may think (there’s that word again) about the notion of stillness. It’s an illusion. Just a thought that makes no real sense.

At best we can sense stillness in snatches that can become longer as our meditation/mindfulness practice deepens. Enlightenment may be the final reward for the few who manage to find that elusive mental space and spiritual source beyond those fleeting experiences, but the rest of us mere mortals are going to have to reframe our expectations around stilling the mind.

The notion of lasting stillness, beyond the momentary or transitory, is actually out of sync with the dynamic universe that is always changing, always expanding, always in flow. The trick it seems is to find stillness within the movement, silence within the noise.

So Let’s Talk About "Quieting" the Mind Instead

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras may define yoga as being the cessation (nirodha) of vrrti (definitions) of citta (consciousness) -- otherwise put as controlling the way our mind likes to define and label things. Another way it has been described is the control of the "turnings of the mind" (or getting off the hamster wheel -- my words).

But within the various interpretations of the Yoga Sutras there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that our thoughts will disappear altogether -- through the practice of yoga or otherwise.

What we can hope for through yoga is to train ourselves not to get so attached to our thoughts that they drown out the present moment.

What we can really hope for is a quieter, gentler, calmer, focused mind.

All Mind Chatter is Not Equal

Surrendering the idea that we can (or even should) stop thinking entirely is the first step in meditating. And surrender is a very good place to start.

Once we accept that we will always have thoughts, we can concentrate on what we really want to think about. At the same time we can give less concentration (or none at all) to what we don’t want to think about.

If the mind is a garden, then in order to grow we don’t want to rip out the plants, just get rid of the weeds.

We get rid of the weeds (negative thoughts, judgments, endless reliving past pain) first by accepting that our mind can provide fertile ground for weeds just as it can nurture lush plants and beautiful flowers. Then instead of trying to rip out the weeds, we can simply choose not to nourish them, until they wither and die, and the garden has room to grow.

We can choose to nourish thoughts of love and kindness, compassion, and creativity and see them bloom.

From there we can move to our breath and into focus and we can do this at any time, not just while doing asana or sitting in meditation.

The More We Focus on "Good" Thoughts, the More Stillness We Experience

The irony is that our focus on positive thoughts increases and the negative or mindless chatter dies down, we can find more space, more stillness between focused thoughts -- and so our focus deepens, the stillness enlarges, and the clarity and focus deepens some more. A virtuous cycle.

This can lead to inspiration in the middle of doing Triangle Pose (after all, your heart is really open in this posture) or maybe your next big idea might strike while you’re stuck in traffic -- because you choose to think not of being stuck, but instead of being given the space (and stillness) for inspiration to arise.

Just think, your 5, 10, 15, or 30 minutes "stuck in traffic" could be spent ruminating -- “I’m running late, this always happens to me, I’ll never meet that deadline, I’m going to get in trouble, what will my boss think, why does the universe hate me, it’s not fair, life never works out for me...etc...etc."

Or you could switch off that chatter and let the mind gently wander (because you can’t go anywhere, anyway) and just see what arises. And you can work that first thought with focus into another thought, that builds on the spark of an idea until eventually (or even in the space of a red traffic light) you have a "light-bulb" moment. And all you’ve really done is allow the subtle, unforced drift of thoughts to get you there.

So find the stillness in the movement, in the challenging asana, even in the traffic – forget about switching off thoughts and allow them, accept them, and "magically" focus.

And then... ah ha.

What do you do when you can't still your mind? Share your tips and tricks with us below!