The mind holds the key to our good health and happiness. We need to look after it well so that our mind will be at peace rather than unstable, closed-off or troubled, at risk of losing itself. The mind experiences emotions – positive, negative and neutral – from anger and sadness, to loss, joy, happiness, boredom, indifference, equanimity, and so on. As a surface of a still pond ripples when something falls into it, so too does an untrained mind when sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation and arising thoughts come into contact with it. The ripples soon dissipate to stillness. However, interfere with the ripples and more waves will be created. For example, someone’s rude manner may infuriate us. Our instinctive reaction may be with aggression – verbally or physically. Or we may choose to suppress our anger. The former can leave us with regret and guilt afterwards, the latter with anxiety and, if prolonged, can lead to depression. Worse, anger can be stored in our memory bank, waiting to be triggered and re-experienced. We are, in effect, being imprisoned by our past memory, stuck, tormented, and unable to move on.
An angry mind
If you look at the anger, who is angry? Which part of the body is angry: our head, arms, hands or legs? None of those. Yet the body is working hard throughout the state of anger. The heart pumps faster and the lungs expand to let more air and oxygen in. Hence the shortness of breath. Stress hormones are released. Glucose and fatty acids increase in our blood stream to provide us with energy for fight or flight mode. Our muscles tighten. But the body itself is not getting angry. It knows nothing about anger; it only performs its duty to help us survive. The one part of us that gets angry is our mind. This angry mind can time-travel into the past, digging up some related or unrelated unpleasant incidents to get us more upset all over again. Or it can go into the future and worry about the negative effects of past anger, thus feeling anxious and unhappy in the present moment. It wants to fix the past so that the future will look securely happy. The fact that the past has been and gone and is unchangeable leaves us feeling sad and helpless about the future. This unnecessary confusion, helplessness and anxiety occurs because we don’t understand our own mind. Nor do we know how to safeguard it against negative thinking.
The nature of the mind
The mind, in its primal state, is radiant. Its function is to think, imagine, feel, remember. Left unguided, it can think itself to stress, anxiety, anger, and depression without realising it. There is a Thai proverb: When with friends, watch what you say; when alone, watch your thoughts! This is because, left to its own devices, the mind tends to dwell more on negativity. It never keeps still but proliferates. A busy mind is clouded, weighed down by cluttered thoughts, confused and unable to see the way out of the problem. Once the mind gets into the thinking mode, it adds more thoughts to it, gets lost in it and starts to believe in its own thought creation. As the Buddha said: no enemy can harm you as much as your thoughts unguarded.
The runaway mind
When the mind experiences stress, there’s a sense of urgency to get rid of it. The more we try to reject it, the more it gets stuck. Scientists found that emotional memory lasts longer than normal memory. Most people turn to entertainment or some other activities to distract their attention from stress and emotional pain – only to find that they carry the unresolved issue with them everywhere. Even on holiday! The painful event ended an hour ago or a year ago but the mind keeps going back to it and nurturing it with repetitive thoughts. We need to understand this mind, tame it and train it to keep still so that it will not put us at risk of ill health – physically and mentally. Mindfulness is the key.
The mindful mind
In mindfulness training, we bring the mind to the present moment and acknowledge whatever is happening in the here and now without adding any further thought to it. For example, when you are thinking, acknowledge that you are thinking. When you hear something you like or dislike, it’s just hearing; when you see something, it’s just seeing, seeing, seeing. If the mind proliferates, watch it and bring it back to the body, to the breath or to the rising and falling sensation of the abdomen. When anger arises, it’s just anger. If anger doesn’t go away, you can look at it from beginning to end. It starts off just like this, continues and eventually ceases naturally – without you trying to forgive someone or forget the upsetting event. Anger is not you. When you watch a tv programme many times over, you will come to know it so well and be able to predict its beginning, middle and end, as well as the conversations between the characters. You will get bored of it and won’t want to watch it again. Likewise, the mind will become adept at predicting the pattern of its own thoughts and emotions, able to let go of them through understanding. This is empowering because you will know how to handle the painful past and the future worries when they arise in your mind. But understanding it is not enough; you need to work at it regularly by training the mind to be more mindful.
When the mind is still, there is concentration and clarity. We can think better. A mindful mind can stop troublesome thoughts and emotions in their tracks, safeguarding itself and us from miseries. For, it understands things as they are, not as the way we want things to be. It can let go, is at ease and is at peace with itself and the world.
Kamontip Evans is a stress management consultant and author of Taming of the Truant Mind. She also writes blogs on mindfulness meditaion for the Huffington Post.