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Are your thoughts always racing out of control? Do you find it difficult to empty your mind so you can relax and be at peace?
Many people struggle with incessant mental chatter, which drives anxiety and wastes a lot of cognitive energy. As a result, they can never find peace because their minds are always thinking—ruminating about the past or time-traveling into the future.
Here are a few strategies for emptying your mind of unnecessary mental noise so you can focus and think straight.
Why You’re Always Thinking
The human mind has a propensity to think all the time. According to therapist and life coach Russ Harris (The Happiness Trap), the constant mental commentary—what he calls the “thinking self”—is a product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to avoid threats and danger.
However, while the thinking self’s running commentary is meant to keep us safe from harm, the conditions under which the thinking self evolved no longer pertain to our modern existence. Therefore, most of its efforts are wasted.
Furthermore, the never-ending stream of thoughts and images actually decreases our quality of life because most of those thoughts tend to be negative. This is because the human mind is hardwired to dwell on negative events—a phenomenon psychologists call the negativity bias. Negative events have a greater impact on us than positive ones—our emotional responses are stronger for negative events than they are for positive ones. In other words, negative events feel more important to us than positive ones.
TITLE: The Happiness Trap
AUTHOR: Russ Harris
Strategies to Empty Your Mind
If your thoughts are always racing, you need to practice emptying your mind of all the junk information that muddies it and reduce the noise around you.
Here are some strategies that can help you slow down your stream of thoughts and quiet your internal mental chatter.
If you struggle with excessive thinking, you should try Vipassana meditation. The goal of Vipassana meditation is cultivating awareness—the ability to listen to your own thoughts without being caught up in them. The state you are aiming for is where your mind is empty, yet you’re are aware of everything that is happening in the moment, observing your thoughts forming and disappearing without engaging with them.
This is different from entertaining all the thoughts that come up, which is akin to daydreaming.There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. The “texture” is different.
- Being aware of a thought is light in texture, arising lightly as a bubble, and the thought passes without giving rise to the next thought in the chain.
- Normal conscious thought is heavier in texture—“ponderous, commanding, compulsive.” It leads straight to the next thought in the chain.
To achieve the state of Vipassana, you need a reference point—the central focus to which you can return your mind once it wanders off. Usually, practitioners use their breath as the central focus. In Vipassana, breathing is the center of focus because it happens automatically for most of the day and you’ve got to work at it to focus on it, but not focus is hard.
How to Practice Vipassana Meditation
Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (Mindfulness in Plain English) recommends starting at 10-20 minutes of Vipassana practice. Further you shouldn’t worry about attaining any particular goal within a particular time period—this will just be distracting and counterproductive.
- Sit in a comfortable pose. Do not change the position again until the time you determined at the beginning. Shifting positions will avoid giving you a deep level of concentration.
- Sit with your back straight. The spine should be erect, with the head in line with the spine. Be relaxed, not stiff. Have no muscular tension.
- Your clothing should be loose and soft. Don’t wear clothing so tight it restricts blood flow or nerve sensation. Take your shoes off.
- You can choose to sit on the floor or in a chair. Sit motionlessly and close your eyes.
- Take 3 deep breaths. Then breathe normally and effortlessly, focusing your attention on the rims of your nostrils where the air is flowing through.
- Simply notice the feeling of breath going in and out. You may notice mindfully that there is a brief pause between inhaling and exhaling—but don’t obsess over this.
- Keep focusing your attention on your breath. Do not verbalize or conceptualize anything. Simply notice the incoming and outgoing breath, and notice as the breath lengthens as you relax.
When your mind wanders and gets distracted, bring it back. He suggests counting in a variety of ways, basically to distract your mind back to breathing:
- Count 1 when inhaling, 2 when exhaling. Repeat to 10 then repeat.
- Count 1 to 10 quickly when inhaling, and again when exhaling.
- Once your mind is focused on the breath, give up counting.
When distracted, gently but firmly return to your focus. Do not get upset or judge yourself from straying. Do not force things out of your mind—this adds energy to the thoughts that will make them return stronger.
Over time, your breathing will become shallower and more subtle. This is an indicator of concentration.
- You will develop a new more subtle “sign”—which appears differently to different people (a star, a long string, a cobweb, the moon, a flower). Over time, master this so that whenever you want the sign, it should be available.
The mind must keep up with what is happening at every moment, so do not try to stop the mind at any one moment. This is momentary concentration.
When you feel in a state of concentration, the mind can then move to other sounds, memories, or emotions, one at a time. As they fade away, let your mind return to the breath.
TITLE: Mindfulness in Plain English
AUTHOR: Bhante Gunaratana
Another useful practice for emptying your mind is journaling. A daily journaling practice is the mental equivalent of regularly clearing the cobwebs out of your home. It’s no coincidence that almost every creative or intellectual genius in history kept a journal.
Many people journal first thing in the morning, and some write again at the end of each day. Just write down any thoughts that come into your head. In his book Stillness Is the Key, Ryan Holiday recommends practicing some amount of freewriting every day in order to clear the jumbled thoughts from your mind and make room for flashes of insight to come through.
The benefits of journaling go beyond merely emptying your mind—it can also help you put your life into perspective by encouraging a regular habit of introspection. In particular, by using your journal to track your experiences and actions over time, you can reflect on your life and clarify what matters to you—for example, the tasks you find most fulfilling.
Present Moment Awareness
Another practice for emptying your mind is to focus on being in the present. We waste too much of our time and mental energy thinking about the past or future. Those do not exist at this moment. Only this moment is real and present.
According to spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now), you should get into the habit of pausing and emptying your mind of everything that’s not in your immediate experience:
- Sit in a chair. Don’t lean back, keep your spine straight. Relax your body.
- Put your attention on your breathing. Observe the air coming in and out. Feel your lungs as they expand with air, and then empty.
- Accept the world around you exactly as it is.
- Listen to the sounds around you. Don’t think about them, just acknowledge them. Observe the silence in between sounds.
- Look at the shape, color, and texture of everything around you. Again, just acknowledge these objects without interpreting anything about them.
- Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. With each breath, feel your stomach fill with air and then empty again.
- Put your attention on your inner body. Do you feel the life in your hands, arms, feet, legs, chest, stomach?
- Feel the energy that flows through your body with each breath.
- If it helps, imagine that you are surrounded by a light that fills your body with every breath. Imagine that light illuminating your entire being, vibrating with energy.
- Keep focusing on your inner body. Try to feel it without thinking about it.
- If possible, let go of the image in your mind of the light.
- Feel the presence and energy of your inner body. Let that feeling transcend the boundary of the inner and outer body, and just envelope your entire being.
- Stay in this state of presence as long as you feel comfortable. When you’re ready, slowly become aware of your physical body again. Gently open your eyes and look around with a soft gaze. For a few minutes, just take in your surroundings, remaining aware of your inner body.
The more often you can connect with your inner body, the more presence you are able to maintain. Once you are present, you will not stay there — you will need to remind yourself and practice, and eventually you will spend more time in the present.
TITLE: The Power of Now
AUTHOR: Eckhart Tolle
Get Into the “Flow State” of Mind
Finally, you can practice emptying your mind by getting into the “flow” state. When you’re in a state of flow, you’re so engaged in the activity that you lose your sense of time. For example, an artist immersed in creating a beautiful painting is experiencing flow: She is so absorbed in the activity that her mind is empty of anything that’s outside of it.
When people describe activities conducive to flow, they mention one or more of the following nine components:
- You’re able to concentrate on an activity for an extended period of time.
- The task has a clear goal.
- You receive immediate feedback on your progress.
- You have the skills to complete the task.
- You feel a sense of control.
- You’re absorbed in the task, and it feels almost effortless. You’re not thinking about stresses from the rest of your life.
- Your sense of time is altered. You either feel like time passes quickly or that it has slowed in a helpful way.
- You don’t feel self-conscious, and your sense of self emerges stronger.
- The experience is “autotelic”: You want to repeat it because it was so enjoyable.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian-American psychologist who recognized and naked the concept of flow, you can transform an activity into a flow activity by creating a framework for what you want to do and how you’ll measure progress. Here’s how:
- Set a goal. Write your main goal and any related, smaller goals you’ll need to achieve first.
- Decide how you’ll measure your progress. This could be any unit of measure. For example, if your goal is to decrease the time it takes you to run a mile, your unit is time.
- Concentrate on the activity. Flow comes with focus. Choosing an activity that is challenging enough helps you concentrate on it.
- Study all aspects of the activity to understand its nuances. For example, if your goal is to improve your golf game, you might study different putting techniques.
- Develop the skills needed to take advantage of new opportunities. When you first set a goal, you may not be aware of all the opportunities available to you. As you learn of them, develop the skills you need to take advantage of them.
- Don’t get bored. Once you’ve mastered your goal, create a new goal to challenge yourself and avoid boredom.
AUTHOR: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Many of us spend unnecessary time and energy in repetitive and unproductive thoughts, fantasizing or worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. As a result, we often lose sight of what is happening in our immediate awareness. To prevent this from happening, it’s important to ground yourself from time to time by emptying your mind and silencing your inner dialogue.
If you enjoyed our article about emptying your mind, check out the following suggestions for further reading:
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari is a parable centered on Julian, a hotshot-lawyer-turned-monk, and his former colleague John. Julian shares with John what he’s learned from studying with a near-mythological group of monks in India who know the secrets to enlightenment. His lessons teach how to live a simple, fulfilling, and happy life.
Former ABC News anchor Dan Harris believes anyone can benefit from meditation. In 10% Happier, he offers a skeptic’s journey through the world of self-help following his meltdown on live television. Harris explains how meditation allowed him to get control of his anxiety, manage his ego, and become a more compassionate person. This book explores how mindfulness and meditation can improve your life and career—even by just 10%.
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