How to take a rest from over-thinking
There is a place you can rest your mind, says Stephen Archer, mindfulness educator/trainer and a former Buddhist monk. And wouldn't we all want to go there?
Stephen Archer talks so much sense you could never find yourself drifting into faraway unrelated thoughts while engaging with him. But he tells me that's exactly what our minds do - drift to the past and the future and miss what's happening now. Whether at work, amongst friends, hanging the washing or playing with the kids, the mind can wander.
Blame it on all those emails or the knowledge economy we find ourselves part of, but our minds now carry large loads; they're over-stimulated and people are getting attention fatigue.
People are struggling to focus, says Archer, describing a state coined "continuous partial attention" where you can only partially give your attention to anything at once.
"Minds have an amazing capacity to take us elsewhere - get us lost in other moments.
"While the body is 'here', going just one breath at a time, the mind is usually skipping around from place to place."
That affects relationships; it affects listening; and it hampers the enjoyment you would derive from fully engaging in what you're doing.
As concluded by a large 2010 Harvard University Study, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. "The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost," said the authors.
Time to be mindful
Fortunately, there's an antidote to all this mental distraction - the perfect opposite to wayward thought - and these days we're hearing a lot more about it. It's the practice of mindfulness.
One way to describe it, says Archer, is the practice of putting your mind where your body is.
The challenge is to free ourselves of extraneous thoughts and value the moment, because it's the only moment we have.
Being in the present does take practice though.
"Even though it seems like a really simple thing to do, when people start engaging in mindfulness they find it extraordinarily difficult. But that's where self-discovery and learning comes into it. You'll see all those patterns and tendencies you have, which tend to take you sideways."
With practice it becomes a lot easier, he says, and that's when people discover that awareness is buoyant. "They can rest in awareness."
How we get there
When most people think of developing the mind, they think of going off to get a master's degree. Well that's one way to go about it, says Archer, but mindfulness is not about filling yourself up at all.
"If you want a healthy body, you need to keep it moving. But if you want a healthy mind, you have to learn to keep it still."
It's about learning that the mind has got a resting place. Just as the body can relax, the mind can also relax.
But that doesn't mean spacing out, or manipulating the mind into a blissful state, and it doesn't mean you have to be in a cave or in the Himalayas. None of that will really make us more attentive when we're in the workplace or with our kids.
Stilling the mind doesn't mean we have to stop thinking either. Because, of course, thinking is just natural and if we try to arrest that, it can make us tense. Nor is it about trying to force ourselves to feel more present.
No, it's about waking up to the ways in which we anaesthetise ourselves to the present moment, he says. Noticing the ways that we get hijacked from the present, as if somewhere else is better than where we are right now. Essentially, it's about catching ourselves drifting off to another place and bringing ourselves back to what we're actually doing.
So where is the place you can rest your mind? "Actually it's right here in the present moment. It's something you can do in the midst of activity - it's something you can do as you go about life."
It's simply where you go when you're being more mindful.
There is a mindfulness exercise you can practice every day - call it a 5-minute meditation. The more you practice, the more you'll be able to put the skill into everyday use.