Updated: Dec 13, 2022
I am currently on the first ‘gap year’ of my life. It has turned out to be quite ‘the gap’ as thanks to COVID, I’ve had to shelve all my plans as it all involved travel! I started to work on other projects close to my heart instead. Most days I find myself happily self-employed in these but from time-to-time I feel a sense of utter restlessness and discontent set in. It is during one such ‘episode’ that I penned this article, in real-time, as I worked through my restless mind. I wanted to put my knowledge and practice of mindfulness to test – could I apply these to reboot the mind and return it to a more joyful state of being?
PART 1: LEARNING TO BE GRATEFUL
As I sit here, staring into the blank white screen of my laptop, I feel a sense of utter restless and general discontent. Ironic given I am supposed to be on a break – a holiday even.
On day’s like this, I find myself getting caught in all things that I don't have or can't do ... In the process I lose perspective on all the good things that I do have and can do.
To turn this state of mind around, I need to start by reminding myself of all things in my life that I am truly grateful. My first step in becoming mindful, will be to write out a gratitude list.
I live in a safe country, in a comfortable home, close to the ocean, surrounded by good friends, a supportive family and a strong spiritual community
After years of being happily single, by sheer chance, just as the world was shutting down, I met a kind and loving man who brings much joy and laughter into my life
I live simply and frugally and that in itself gives me a lot of security
Although I live in an apartment there is a small piece of land I can grow and nurture a small garden in
I know how to cook and enjoy beautiful meals every day - on which point how lucky are we to have such an abundance of beautiful food even in these trying times
I am smart and have enjoyed a wonderful career, working in roles that I loved and with people that I respect
It’s a small list but I am already starting to feel better as my mind, through the physical act of writing, is forced to focus on the positives.
PART 2: WORKING THROUGH THE ACHIEVER COMPLEX
Starting with a 'gratitude list' was a good call but the 'achiever within’ continues to prod, “Why stop here? Go on, do more and achieve more so that (and here's the clincher) there is a lot more you can be grateful for!”
So the next logical thing to do is to work through this ‘achiever complex’ of mine.
A few thoughts come to mind.
“Why do I need to do anything, at all? Why is it not OK for me to just chill and enjoy this break in a life that has otherwise been consumed with toil - doing, doing, doing all the time?”
I have pondered these many times before and I think it all comes down to having grown up in modern societies that are obsessed with doing and achieving. Simply 'being' is not discussed, and if it comes up, it's always dismissed as the path of lazies, hippies and new-age flakes.
Unsurprisingly, even when I have earned the right to 'be', my mind won't let me.
It nags unceasingly, both consciously and sub-consciously, with doubt and questions, “Are you making the most of your life? Are you doing enough? Look at everyone else and see how much they are achieving! They are so driven they don't even need to sleep for more than four hours a day! What about that article on the ten things successful people do before they even have breakfast - you should totally read that!”
On and on it goes.
Without some serious mind training, ideally grounded in ancient Eastern wisdom traditions, it's impossible to recognise that this voice is not 'you' at all - rather the ramblings of an untrained mind.
Even with mindfulness training, which I have been practicing seriously for almost six years now, it's still hard not to give into these taunts. The moment you do, it has got you – hook, line and sinker! Next thing you know, despite all you have done and achieved, at best you feel restless and discontent, and at worst, depressed.
So what to do next?
It’s time to put this mind training of mine into practice! Off I go to do a formal meditation sit for an hour, flavoured as follows:
Start with focusing on the breath. This gives the mind a solid anchor point on which to focus and rest.
As the mind settles, take a step back and dispassionately observe the ramblings of the mind like you are listening to the radio or watching TV
Recognise and label all that comes up as mere thoughts - not mistaking these to be messages or insights or signs
Work at not engaging with the thought - watch it without getting involved and observe how this causes it to lose energy and dissipate.
Keep repeating this process as one thought will no doubt be immediately replaced by another thought …
Inevitably a thought will hook the attention and carry it off. Be grateful for becoming aware of this and then start the practice again with the breath …
When practiced long enough, this sort of meditation creates an experiential awareness of the much cliched phrase - 'I am not my mind' – which is very reassuring once you get acquainted with all that goes on in your mind!
The practice today has served as a much need reminder of this very important fact.
PART 3: TAKING THE PRACTICE 'OFF-THE-MAT'
The formal meditation practice provided some reprieve but as I came out of it, the very next thought that appeared in my mind on this restless day is, “what now?”
This should not come as a surprise. The tendency to feel restless and discontent is so deeply ingrained that a sixty minute isn't going to cut it. Recognising the ramblings of the mind for what it is requires constant vigilance and practice.
Mindfulness is practice that I find I need to begin ‘on-the-mat’ and then carry with me ‘off-the-mat’.
Ironically, the best time for the practice is precisely moments like these – when the mind is feeling restless and discontent.
The next step for me is to carry the practice ‘off-the-mat’.
This requires some self-talk and application of reason, logic and discerning human intelligence that we are all blessed with:
I start with acknowledging what I feel – restless and discontent.
I remind myself that these feelings are brought on by thoughts, which are merely the musings of an untrained mind. If I am not my mind, then by deduction, I cannot be my thoughts and certainly not my feelings …
I remind myself that I have witnessed this ‘phenomenon’ first-hand during my (‘on-the-mat’) practice just now and more explicitly in longer term retreats
I ask myself, "What is the point in engaging in this energy draining endeavour when none of it is really true?"
Where the obsessive thought and feeling persist, I go so far as to tell myself to "stop".
Like all skills, mind training gets better with practice. It is the act of practicing this skill both, whilst sitting on a cushion and engaging with worldly affairs, that cultivates an ability ‘to be’.
PART 4: THE ART OF BEING
“That's all well and good”, counters the very next thought in my head, “but what does it actually mean 'to be'? Will I reach a state where I will just be happy to sit around and do nothing? Should I not actively seek ways to contribute productively? Will I somehow become content with being unemployed? Please explain.”
In popular culture, "being" is often (derogatorily) taken to mean not doing anything ie inert, unproductive and likely unemployed ... This could not be further from the truth.
'Being' doesn't mean not doing anything. It's not related to action - rather it's a state of mind.
It’s a state that comes about when you have cut through the perturbations of a restless mind and tapped into a stream of unwavering equanimity. You find yourself content regardless your external situation i.e. your state of mind is no longer dependent on external causes and conditions. It’s liberating.
And no, you don't turn into a vegetable either … rather you get a lot more energy to act, as you are no long squandering this on the wanderings of the mind. When you act, it is with a focus and drive like never before. Your motivations are purely altruistic as you no longer caught up in a 'me me me' world.
When you can act in this way, you are being, and when you are not acting, you rest easy.
PART FIVE: MY MIND IS AT EASE
I wrote this as a way to work through my restless mind - in real time. It appears to have worked. I feel at ease now … not sure why I am surprised by this. I guess all I needed was a reminder.
And that's just it - everything I have written above has been a reminder to self. There is nothing new here.
These are all the things that I have learnt and experienced these past few years. It is no different to anything that great yogis, lamas and seers who have walked this same path before us have said and done. And it's probably no different to what you have learnt in mind training yourself.
I guess we all need a reminder sometimes on which point I should remember to say (now that I have calmed down) that I am really grateful for and am enjoying this time in life where I get to step back and take a break from the 'rat race'!
I have time to relax, reflect and work through what I want to do with the second half of my life. I create, share and inspire. I write.
Most days, I am happily self-employed :-)
The teachings that I have received and the work I am doing to understand the working of the mind came about quite serendipitously over the last fifteen years, as I deeply questioned the point of this existence ...
I could see then what I know now to be true - the set beliefs and patterns of life and living in these modern westernised societies of ours are at best, incomplete, and at worst, incorrect.
Today we are the most comfortable of any in our species before us but we are also the most miserable.
Five years ago I learnt of a statistic that shocks me to this day - one in every four adults in Australia had been diagnosed with a mental illness. While the world deals with the COVID pandemic, this crisis of the mind is no doubt growing as masses of people conditioned to always be doing, now find themselves confined - most with no grounding in mind training whatsoever.
Now more than ever, the world needs to embrace the wisdom of mind training, which has been developed and nurtured in the traditions of the East for over 5000 years. And it needs to be adopted in its entirety. The piecemeal way in which mindfulness has been carved out to be convenient to our modern sensibilities won't do. Mindfulness stands on the foundation of ethics - without it, the benefits are superficial and transient.
The science of the West has brought us many comforts of the body. We now need to embrace the wisdom of the East to put our minds at ease.